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.
The House of Sasan ruled the Sasanian Empire from 224 to 651. Ardashir I named the dynasty in honor of his grandfather, Sasan. The Sassanian Royal Symbol and the Mythology of Persia. (Public Domain)
Ardashir Challenges the Parthians
Ardashir made his challenge known in 224 CE. While risky, he knew that the Parthian power base at Ctesiphon was impotent and the confederation that supported the Arsacid throne weak and tired of Arsacid rule. Ardashir understood that so long as the Arsacid’s stayed in power, the next Roman invasion of Iranian lands would go roughly unchecked. To avoid this from happening, there was a crucial need for a much stronger central government capable of fielding a tough, well-disciplined army with the ability to meet, engage, discharge, and have the ability to give chase and conquer former territory once under Achaemenid rule.
Ardashir, uncertain, but ready for the challenge, soon gained support beyond the borders of Persis. Many supporters from the provinces of Media, Media Atropatene, Adiabene, and Kurdistan, came to join in the rebellion. But that would not be enough if he was to defeat King Artabanus V. To seal the deal, Ardashir needed the support of the Iranian highlanders in the northwest.
This is mentioned in the Arbela Chronicles which state: “And this was recognized by the Persians and the Medes and they closed a union with Šahrat, the king of Hedajjab, and Domjtana, the king from Karek Selok and made a hefty assault on the Parthians in spring.” With many nations now backing Ardashir, particularly the western Iranians, which was extremely important (for the Parthian seat of power was right in the middle), Ardashir made his move to battle.
Artabanus V, like any king during a time of crises, assembled his forces and marched on the province of Persis to crush Ardashir.
The fate of the Iranian peoples was decided by three battles. The first battle was won by Ardashir but at a considerable cost for both sides. According to the Book of the Deeds of Ardashir son of Babag, Ardashir “came to battle with Ardavan (Artabanus) but Artabanus was not in command of the Parthian forces. Instead, Bahman, the son of Artabanus, led the forces and was killed along with his entire army. Afterwards, Ardashir “seized their wealth, property, horses; and portable lodges, and settled himself in Stakhar.” Some may view this battle as a draw.
The second battle also was a victory for Ardashir and proved pivotal, for the Parthians suffered a great loss of men. With Parthia wounded, Ardashir took advantage of the situation and pressed on. The final battle between the two powers took place at Hormizdeghan, near the modern city of Bandar Abbas, 28 April 224 CE.
Ardashir chose this area, which gave him access to the water supplies, crucial to quench the thirst of men and horses. As for Artabanus, his force took up a position near an inadequate water supply. In such a hot area and with a lack of water, both man and beast grew weary the longer they waited. This may have been Ardashir’s strategy. Taking advantage of the water supply physically weakened the Parthians, which in turn caused psychological distress.
When both armies formed battle lines, the forces of Ardashir were better equipped, as some of his horsemen were wearing the Roman-style, flexible chain armor. Artabanus fielded a much larger force. However, his forces were hastily assembled, ill equipped, and less prepared for battle, for even the king of the Parthians was wearing the old style lamellar armor considered cumbersome at the time. While details of the final battle are scant, Ardashir was victorious as “He killed Ardavan, whose entire wealth and property fell into the hands of Ardashir, who married Ardavan’s daughter, and went back to Pars.”
Details of this battle can be seen at Firuzabad, Iran. The rock carving shows Ardashir unhorsing and killing Artabanus V from his horse in a joust. This ended the House of Arsaces and established the House of Sasan.
Drawing of French orientalist painter and traveler Eugene Flandin (1840): Sasanian king Ardachir Babakan’s rock relief (Firuzabad 1), Scene showing an equestrian victory over Parthian king Artabanus V, province of Fars, Iran. (Public Domain)
Ghal’eh Dokhtar (or “The Maiden’s Castle”) in present-day Fars, Firuzabad, Iran, built by Ardashir in 209, before he was finally able to defeat the Parthian empire. (Public Domain)
Ardashir’s Military Reform and Forces
After defeating the Parthians, Ardashir turned his attention towards driving Rome back into the sea and restoring the former glory of Persia when it was under Cyrus the Great. However, Ardashir needed a professional army, an army that was organized, and not only in structure, but also in capability.
Rome was not an easy army to fight, just look at the many battles fought between Rome and Parthia over time. They were equals to one another. However, one was better at going on the offensive while the other excelled at remaining defensive. Ardashir needed an army that could do both, for he could not afford just a defensive army.
Ardashir consolidated and centralized his forces directly under his command. He was absolute, and an absolute monarchy needed a subjective army that would forcefully submit to the nobility without contestation. In order to do this, the command must start at the very top, which was the king himself, Ardashir.
Bust of a Sasanian king, most likely Shapur II (309 to 379 CE) Representative image. (Public Domain)
The Chain of Command
Ardashir was not only King of Persia, but he was the Shahenshah, “King of kings.” Ardashir’s military chain of command started with the Vuzurg-Framander. The Vuzurg-Framander was in charge of state affairs when the Shahenshah was off on a military campaign. The person in charge of the military forces was the Eran-Spahbad. Under the Eran-Spahbad was the Spahbad who was a general and could be a military governor of a province. The Spahbad received help from his assistants, known as the “Padgospan.” The Padgospan, otherwise known as “Padan” were lower officers assisting the Spahbad. Under the Padan was the Framandar, which were the battlefield commanders. This list provides a somewhat clear detail as to the day-to-day duties of the military chain of command whether in peace or in war. However, other titles are mentioned, but many remain unclear as to their job description or role in war.
Now that we have a glimpse into the command structure of the Sassanid military, one can see that it was highly organized due to its centralized role. Nevertheless, good command structure needs a good army to function, in order to go on the offensive or stay on the defensive when needed.
The Sassanid military was heavy and built for shock for its sole purpose was to dominate the battlefield and beyond. The Sassanid military force was a mirror image of the Parthian military. In other words, cavalry ruled the day throughout the empire. Cavalry was tradition in these parts and the Sassanids continued in that tradition, but with better organization.
The Sassanids primarily relied on two types of cavalry in combat; the heavy cavalry consisted of cataphracts, the clibanarii, and the lighter horse archer cavalry. In addition to the cavalry, the Sassanids also relied upon infantry and elephants as well as having an effective siege train. However, cavalry was the cornerstone of the Sassanid army.
Historical re-enactment of a Sassanid-era cataphract, complete with a full set of scale armor for the horse. (GFDL)
As mentioned before, the cataphracts and the clibanarii were the cornerstone of the Sassanid army, the reason is that they were heavy. What made them heavy was the use of scale or plate armor. Both horse and rider were covered in an elaborate array of armor. This gave the horse and its rider full protection and provided the Sassanid forces with a shock element that could ride down, fleeing enemy forces or piercing through enemy formations thus breaking enemy cohesion into pieces and exposing them.
Horse archers also were pivotal in regards to mounted combat; they provided the heavy cavalry windows of opportunity. Horse archer’s main role was to not only fix an enemy unit or army but to lead them out in open pasture for annihilation by the heavy cavalry once exposed. Nevertheless, horse archers could also be considered psychological warfare, for once the arrows began to rain down the end never seemed to come and when doubt set in, either the enemy fled or its officers made irrational decisions that ultimately exposed the men, which led to certain death.
Cataphracts fighting Roman cavalry during the Dacian wars circa 101 AD. (Public Domain)
An example of both heavy and light cavalry elements combined comes from the battle of Carrhae in 53 BCE. This battle highlights the effective use of both heavy and light cavalries that the Sassanids were accustomed.
Elephants were also deployed upon the field of battle. The elephants the Sassanids used were from India. Every elephant was mounted with howdahs, which carried the armed men including the driver.
Elephant in Battle, Kota, Rajasthan, India circa 1750-70. (Public Domain)
A medieval Armenian miniature representing the Sasanian War elephants in the Battle of Vartanantz. (Public Domain)
Another aspect that sometimes is easily forgotten, or overlooked, is the fact that elephants scare horses due to their smell. Horses that were not accustom to the beasts’ smell, became upset and restless with fear, causing panic among the ranks. This also prompted fear among the Roman ranks who had never encountered such an intimidating and powerful beast. In many ways, the Sassanid use of the elephant was a psychological shock weapon for both men and animals on the opposing side.
Infantry was the weak link to the Sassanid military structure and organization throughout their long history. The reason was due to the Sassanids being grounded in a cavalry based culture that was very much pastoral as well as agricultural. However, it is the pastoral way of life that controlled the Sassanid Empire and the way it fought. Nevertheless, we are not at a complete loss concerning the role of infantry in the Sassanid military apparatus.
The infantry, for the most part, was not what one would think as a traditional infantryman; frankly, they resembled nothing of an infantryman. The historian Procopius, describes the Sassanid infantry as being, “nothing more than a crowd of pitiful peasants who come into battle for no other purpose than to dig through walls and despoil the slain and in general to serve the other soldiers.” As for weapons, it seems that many had none at all, for Procopius states that the only thing between them and the enemy was, “enormous shields.” However, the Sassanid military did have an infantry unit that was effective and heavy, but not great in numbers. They were known as the Dailamites.
A Sasanian army helmet. “There were several different types of army helmet worn by Sassanian soldiers. This rare helmet likely resembled the tall headdresses (kulah) depicted on Sassanian portrait seals and dates to the 6th century AD.” (Public Domain)
The Dailamites (or Daylamites) were a different breed of infantry warrior men. The Dailamites came from Northern Persia and were spoken highly about among the Romans. They were known for sword and dagger skills, but also carried a battle-axe, a two-pronged spear, and to top it all off, they also carried a rather large decorative shield. In addition, they were hardy and able to fight with the best of them—whomever or whatever was thrown their way. However, the only problem was they lacked numbers, as it seems that only four thousand were employed as the king’s elite guard.
Foot archers were another highly prized infantry force among the Sassanid military. An officer known as a “Tribad” led foot archers. Foot archers could add to the already heavy volume of arrows being delivered by the horse archers. It was raining death on a massive scale, as the quantity of arrows would increase and come closer as the foot archers moved forward, showering the enemy with arrows. This tactic did not always work, but it seems to have been effective overall, offsetting the enemy formation on both the offensive and defensive. Nevertheless, foot archers are used for siege operations, as they were placed in the tops of towers to shower arrows down on the enemy protecting the walls and to protect the towers from any would-be saboteur.
Ardashir I was known as the Adashir the Unifier. It was his intelligence, energy, and talent for organization and strategy that enabled him to overthrow an empire and create another, forming a dynasty that would last four hundred years.
The Sasanian Empire at its greatest extent c. 632 CE (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Top Image: Deriv; Sassanid-era Cataphract Renactor (GFDL), and The Battle of Hormozdgan, April 28, 224 CE. (Public Domain)
By Cam Rea
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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.
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.”
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). (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.”
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) (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.
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.
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?
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. (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.
After the crushing defeat of Marcus Licinius Crassus and the Roman army at the Battle of Carrhae, a campaign was planned by Roman leaders such as statesman Julius Caesar and General Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony) to drive east, conquer, and secure the Parthian Empire once and for all.
Mark Antony was a Roman politician and general, who was a member of the Second Triumvirate. Like Crassus, before, Antony was enticed by the riches of the Far East and the potential glory it could bring through military conquest. This became known as Antony’s Parthian War.
In 37 BC, Antony began preparations for war. His first act was a campaign to squash, replace, and consolidate many of the regions in Asia-Minor and along the Levant that was sympathetic to the republican cause or to Parthian rule. He made sweeping changes throughout the regions, establishing Darius in Pontus, Herod in Judea, Polemon in Cilicia, and Amyntas in Pisidia. However, these were just a fraction of the many changes that took place. Once his western flank was secure from possible rebellion, Antony set his eyes on Armenia.
Marcus Antonius (Antony). (Public Domain)
Blood and Treasure
Antony secured the various provinces in Asia-Minor under Roman hegemony, but he still had one basic issue stopping him from proceeding with his Parthian campaign: money. Antony was cash-strapped. Even those rulers Antony had established in Asia-Minor that were pro-Roman could offer little funding, for Asia was bankrupt.
In order to acquire the funds needed to pay for his grand expedition against Parthia, Antony turned to the age-old practice of debasement—lowering the value of coin by mixing the silver denarius with iron. But even this was not enough. Since taxation and inflation could not provide the funds Antony needed, his last option was borrowing.
Cleopatra greets Antony. She assists his war against Parthia. (CC BY-SA 4.0)
As he made his way towards Syria, he requested that Cleopatra, his love, and financier of war, to meet him in Antioch. Once Cleopatra reached Antioch, Antony exchanged provinces for money, particularly the provinces of “Phoenicia, Coele Syria, Cyprus, and a large part of Cilicia; and still further, the balsam-producing part of Judaea, and all that part of Arabia Nabataea which slopes toward the outer sea.”
Map of the troop movements during the first two years of the Roman–Parthian War of 58–63 AD over the Kingdom of Armenia, detailing the Roman offensive into Armenia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
With Cleopatra’s financing and his territorial holdings stabilized, Antony began the process of assembling his massive juggernaut consisting of 60,000 Roman infantry, 10,000 Iberian and Celtic cavalry, and 30,000 troops comprised of other nations. This required a massive amount of resources needed to grease the wheels of the army. There should have been an additional 20,000 legionaries sent to Antony under a deal struck between him and Octavian at Tarentum but they never materialized. In total, Antony had 113,000 troops at his disposal, if not more— twice the size of Crassus’ invasion force of 53 BC—poised for immediate action.
However, this is where Antony got into trouble. The Roman forces that had mobilized for war were tired and needed to rest, especially the main body, the Roman infantry, which had just marched a thousand miles, not to mention that when they arrived it was the winter of 37-36 BC. Antony’s reason for starting the war before spring was his desire to be with Cleopatra. Once Antony and Cleopatra reached the Euphrates, he had to make a decision: take the path Crassus took, or head north and invade Media Atropatene, a Parthian client state, via Armenia.
Pushing into Parthia
Antony chose to head north towards Armenia. Once he made his decision, he sent Cleopatra back to Egypt. The reason for Antony’s choice is obvious. Phraates IV, ruler of the Parthian Empire had beefed up his defenses along the Euphrates and was watching Antony closely.
A coin face depicting King Phraates IV of Parthia. (Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. www.cngcoins.com /CC BY-SA 3.0)
With Cleopatra heading back to Egypt, Antony headed northward from Zeugma on the advice of King Artavasdes of Armenia. The king’s forces of the ancient kingdom of Media Atropatene were with the Parthian forces guarding the Euphrates. Thus, if one desired to enter Parthia, then Media Atropatene was their brief blind spot—and it should be taken advantage of quickly. Moreover, Media Atropatene was rugged terrain, which would negate the use of cavalry, thus forcing the horse-proud Parthians and their allies into hand-to-hand combat with the Roman legionaries.
The coin of Artavasdes II, King of Media Atropatene. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
As Antony made his way into Armenia, Artavasdes proudly displayed and offered Antony “6,000 thousand horses drawn up in battle array in full armor and 7,000 foot.”
Antony amassed a Roman juggernaut of thousands of Roman infantry, Iberian and Celtic cavalry, and tens of thousands of troops comprised of other nations. (CC BY-ND 2.0)
Informants among the Romans and those nearby watching the progress of their movements relayed the information to Phraates. Knowing that the Romans soon would enter the Parthian client state of Media Atropatene, Phraates sent a message to four hundred Parthian nobles to assemble their cavalry forces, which totaled 50,000, and prepare to forestall, frustrate, and divert, if not ultimately destroy, the Roman forces.
It’s a Trap
As the Roman forces moved towards Praaspa, the capital of Media Atropatene, they did so without hindrance. One would think Antony would grow suspicious, since he had not encountered the enemy during the long journey deep into enemy territory. But then again, he trusted his guides without question and never once considered that maybe he was walking into a trap. This is where Antony committed his second blunder. Growing impatient with the speed of his forces, he decided to divide his army.
Antony was growing tired of the sluggish pace. It was not his infantry or cavalry causing the slow movement, but the siege engines and baggage train. The reason for their slow movement went beyond being weighted down with supplies. Antony had led his army through the dense forests of Media Atropatene; it was easy for infantry and cavalry to maneuver through, but the large cumbersome wagons and siege engines on narrow roads required tree removal, which was a task unto itself.
Siege engines were large and cumbersome, and built heavily. They slowed the pace of an advancing army. (Public Domain)
Antony had three hundred wagons to carry the siege engines, one of which was a battering ram eighty feet long. If the siege weapons were captured or destroyed, they could not be replaced in time, and even if they had time, the wood in the region was not sufficiently long or strong enough. On top of all that, the baggage train carried valuable supplies, such as food, weapons, clothes, officer’s tentage, and medical supplies. Overall, the baggage train was the lifeblood of the army.
Siege engines were employed by the Roman army during invasions. (Public Domain)
Antony decided to split his army in two; he took the bulk of the force, and placed the baggage and siege engines under the command of Brigadier General Oppius Statianus with a security force consisting of two legions. Once Antony detached himself from his burden, it was full steam ahead.
Seige on Praaspa
Antony was confident that he could take the city of Praaspa with ease. Once outside the city walls, the Romans quickly began the grueling task of building earth mounds in preparation for the arrival of siege equipment, particularly the towers. As the earth ramps moved closer to the walls, one can only imagine the carnage suffered by the Romans below. But as time passed, there was no sign of the siege equipment. With no siege equipment in sight, Antony gave the order to assault the walls; one can speculate that the Roman infantry was using makeshift ladders or other ineffective climbing devices. But the numbers of men participating in the assault were ineffective since the walls were strong and heavily defended. With no success in gaining a foothold on the walls, nor any siege engines in sight, Antony grew weary, impatient, and wanted to know why the delay.
Then Antony received terrible news: the baggage train under the command of Statianus had been attacked, the two legions assigned to escort the train had been slaughtered, and the siege equipment destroyed. Many men were taken prisoner including King Polemon of Pontus, who was later released on ransom. The person responsible for this was none other than King Phraates himself.
While Antony busied himself with the siege of Praaspa, the Parthians kept a close eye from afar on both the besiegers and the vital baggage train. Once Antony’s forces were dug in, Phraates took advantage of the situation by sending in a large number of cavalry for a surprise attack. But when considering the dense forests of Media Atropatene, it is possible that the cavalry were aided by Median infantry. In some ways, the attack of Antony’s baggage train was similar to the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD, in which the Romans were moving through a dense German forest and not marching in combat formation, making them subject to devastating attack.
The Roman army was massacred in the Battle of Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD. (Public Domain)
The legions assigned to protect the baggage train under Statianus were not marching in combat formation since, in addition to providing security, they had to move wagons, and clear trees, dead brush, and the occasional rocks along the way. Also, notice there was no cavalry assigned to Statianus to scout ahead and keep a close eye on their surroundings nearby. It seems plausible that the Romans were attacked with a barrage of arrows, after which Median infantry charged in and cut the Romans to pieces.
Meantime, where was King Artavasdes of Armenia? Evidently, Artavasdes’ mission was to support the rear with Statianus. Plutarch mentions that Artavades left due to “despairing of the Roman cause.” Cassius Dio says that he responded to the “message sent to him by Statianus, to go to his assistance, was nevertheless too late, for he found nothing but corpses.” Both sources seem to be correct when placed in context.
Artavades did respond, and when he saw the number of corpses, burnt wagons, and the smell of death in the air, became distressed at all he had witnessed. Suspecting Antony’s forces had been annihilated, he reversed course and headed for home before his forces ended up the same way.
But even this account is lacking. Considering that Antony did not provide Statianus cavalry to scout out the area, one would think that it would have been Artavasdes’ duty to send out cavalry scouts and inform the legions escorting the baggage train of any oncoming enemy attacks, and to take part in the defense, if not a counterattack. It becomes evident that Artavasdes was nowhere near the legions escorting the baggage train and his retreat to Armenia looked as if he had betrayed Antony. If there was one person who could speak on behalf of this disaster, it would have been Polemon, king of Pontus; but his testimony remained silent.
Overextended and Undersupplied
With the siege engines destroyed, two legions massacred, and the food running low, Antony had to make quick decisions. Food was his top priority, but as if matters could not get any worse, the Parthians presently arrived in full battle array and challenged the Romans by first shouting insults. Antony understood that if he were to sit still, the Parthians would increase in number and harry his men with hit and run attacks. Antony quickly made a decision to go forage for food. He took “ten legions and three praetorian cohorts of men-at‑arms, together with all his cavalry.” But he had another motive, to get the Parthians to engage in a pitched battle.
After a day’s march, Antony set up camp, but soon he had to take it down, for scouts brought information that the Parthians were on the move. They knew where the camp was and were quickly moving in to envelop him. Once the Roman forces assembled, Antony gave the order to move out.
Antony sought to avoid battle, but made it clear that if the enemy came within range, the cavalry should charge out against them. The Parthians did come within range and the Roman cavalry quickly scattered them. After seeing the success of the cavalry, the Roman infantry joined the charge and frightened the Parthian horses by yelling and clashing their weapons against their shields, causing them to flee.
Antony quickly took advantage of the situation and pursued the enemy. However, it was all for nothing. The infantry and cavalry were exhausted, they could not keep up with Parthian cavalry, and, to make matters worse, they had nothing of substance to show they had been victorious. Their great efforts produced 80 dead and 30 captured. The Romans were beside themselves after losing 10,000 men along with their baggage train and siege engines, when compared to this measly victory, if one could call it that. But in fact, it was not a battle or a victory. Rather, the Parthians were testing the waters by conducting guerilla hit and run attacks, tactics that the Romans had a hard time understanding when facing the Parthians.
The next day, Antony gave the order to head back to Praaspa. While on the move, the Romans encountered a few enemy forces, but as they continued on, their encounters with the Parthians increased until the whole body showed up, challenging them, and attacking from all directions. Antony kept moving to avoid disaster. Eventually the Romans made it safely back to Praaspa. The Parthian forces that attacked Antony were conducting hit and run attacks, for their goal was not to destroy the Roman forces, but rather to demoralize them. In other words, they were tenderizing the Roman forces before commitment to full-scale attack later.
Relief of Parthian horseman, a highly skilled warrior, performing a Parthian shot. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Once Antony made it back to the siege at Praaspa, he received startling news. While he was away, the Median defenders were able to successfully attack the Roman besiegers, dislodging them from their positions and safely returning behind the walls of the city. This went on for some time. Antony, enraged by the lack of discipline due to his men not standing their ground, decided to take a disciplinary measure known as “decimation,” in which one of every ten soldiers were executed. As for the rest of the besiegers, their punishment was that they would receive rations of barley instead of wheat. But with food running low and Roman foraging parties bringing back more dead and wounded than food, Antony had to do something quick if he wanted his army to survive.
The situation was desperate for the Romn army. (CC BY 2.0)
Phraates felt the same way about his own forces. Summer was gone, the air was getting colder, and he, like Antony, did not want to encamp for the winter. Unlike Antony, he was afraid that many of his men would desert due to the winter distress.
As the siege continued, some Parthians who admired the Romans for their bravery and strong will, were able to ride up next to the Roman cavalry, where they would talk of peace and explain to them that Antony was a fool if he were to stay.
Phraates offered to escort them out of Parthian territory peacefully. The king wanted to end this stagnated war before winter arrived.
The Beginning of the End
Antony received the news and considered their proposal: that if the Romans agreed to Phraates’ kind gesture of escorting them out of Parthian lands peacefully, the king would hold his word. Antony agreed and sent an envoy to meet with Phraates.
When they arrived, the king was “seated upon a golden chair and twanging his bowstring.” The Romans agreed to peace, but delivered their own terms. Phraates must return the Roman standards they had in their possession if he desired peace. Of course, Phraates objected to this and assured Antony of a safe escort home. Antony thought long and hard over this, but he had no other option. The walls of Praaspa were too strong, he had no siege equipment, food was running extremely low, and any attempt to search for a meal resulted in death. If starvation did not kill you, the winter surely would. The Roman general made the decision to leave. This was not easy for Antony and it was hard for him to explain this to the men, so he had Domitius Ahenobarbus deliver the speech. Antony felt like a failure in this great endeavor, but even he understood that it was best to fail while alive and the majority of his men intact than end up like Crassus at Carrhae.
If the debacle at Praaspa was not enough, the retreat was far worse. Antony lost many thousands more men on the long retreat home due to enemy harassment, cold weather, toxic plants, and poisonous water. Antony, like many of his men, could not wait to see the Araxes River, which served as the border between Roman friendly Armenia and the Parthian client state of Media Atropatene. The nightmare was over once they crossed, but the war between the two powers would continue.
Featured image: Deriv; face mask for Roman cavalry helmet, first century AD (CC BY-SA 2.0) and battle scene featuring Parthian horsemen in armor, and Roman riders. (Public Domain)
By Cam Rea
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Plutarch. Moralia. Translated by Frank Cole Babbitt. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1962.
Scott, Beth F. James C. Rainey, and Andrew W. Hunt. The Logistics of War . Maxwell AFB, Gunter Annex, Ala: AF Logistics Management Agency, 2000.
Velleius Paterculus, Roman History, 2.82.
Dio 49, 25; Neilson Carel Debevoise, A Political History of Parthia (Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press, 1938), 126.
Arsaces’ historic invasion of Parthia was a process.
Before Arsaces I, King and founder of the Arsacid dynasty, and his brother, Tiridates captured Parthia, they appeared to be residing in the province previous to the appointment of Andragoras as satrap, or governor. Andragoras gained this position due to Arsaces and Tiridates killing the last two previous satraps by the names of Pherekles and Agathokles.
Information concerning the death of Pherekles by Arsaces is scant. Greek historian Arrian of Nicomedia states it was “to avenge an insult offered to one of them.” This insult provoked a rebellion, which led to the death of the satrap. While nothing more is provided, this small amount of info says much.
Roman, Seleucid, and Parthian Empires in 200 BC. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
During this period, Arsaces probably controlled the Kopet Dagh mountain range running east-west across the northern edge of the Iranian plateau that bordered the Seleucid province of Parthia. Being in such close proximity, it would not be unreasonable to think that Arsaces’ sphere of influence extended somewhat into the province of Parthia. If so, Arsaces possibly held a considerable amount of influence among the locals, who may have provided him with tribute for his protection services.
Furthermore, in both attacks on the province of Parthia, it would not be unreasonable to assume that Arsaces confiscated some territory within the Parthian satrapy.
View on the Kopetdag mountains from the Ahal plain, Turkmenistan. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
As mentioned, an insult caused Arsaces to strike, but the type of insult is unknown, leaving one to speculate.
Afterwards, Arsaces and his military wing fled back to the Kopet Dagh mountain range. While Arsaces traversed his holdings, the Seleucid king, Antiochus II Theos, appointed a new satrap to the province by the name of Agathokles.
Seeing that the situation on the ground in Parthia was still unstable, Arsaces decided to invade again and violently remove the satrap from power. One could suggest that this attack on Parthia was nothing more than a raid. However, there is no mention of a raid. Instead, Arsaces went straight for the satrap.
With the sudden death of Agathokles, Antiochus II appointed a new satrap by the name of Andragoras.
Andragoras is said to possibly be Persian, his original old Persian name being Narisanka. Information regarding Andragoras before his arrival to govern Parthia is limited. What is possible and speculative is that he served as a functionary during the reign of Antiochus I. If so, he would have possibly continued in this role for a period under Antiochus II. Shortly after his appointment, Andragoras found himself defending his seat of power against the same unwanted guests.
WHO WAS ARSACES?
The origins of King Arsaces, the man who would give birth to the ancient Arsacid Dynasty, remain elusive. Information is scant. The oldest known source is Strabo. Strabo, a Greek historian, states, “that Arsaces derives his origin from the Scythians, whereas others say that he was a Bactrian.” Justin, a Latin historian, states that Arsaces was “a man of uncertain origin.” It is evident that Strabo and Justin are unsure of Arsaces origins. While Justin makes no mention of Arsaces ethnicity, Strabo does to a point. In order to uncover precisely who Arsaces was and his possible origins, one must first examine the name Arsaces and the tribe from which he came.
The name Arsaces may or may not have been his real name or, possibly, a throne name, taken by all the descendants who held the same status. Chronicler Syncellus, who relied on the fragments of historian Arrian’s Parthika, mentions that Arsaces was a descendent of the Persian king Artaxerxes II. Syncellus’ information concerning the relationship comes from the fifth century BCE Greek physician and historian Ctesias.
Ctesias was the physician of King Artaxerxes II of Persia, and he compiled a history of Assyria and Persia called Persica during his stay. Ctesias mentions that Artaxerxes’ name before his ascent to the throne was Arsaces, “the king’s son, who afterward changed his name to Artaxerxes.” Moreover, Artaxerxes’ grandfather was king Artaxerxes I, whose name was rendered as Arshak/Arsaces, Babylonian Arshu.
Besides Arrian’s claim that the Arsacids were descendants of the Achaemenid Dynasty, there is a possibility that the two dynasties were medically related due to the presence of a rare disease known as neurofibromatosis. This physical deformity might have been seen as a sign that they were part of a ‘chosen’ few.
The Greek historian Plutarch, speaks of a deformity that King Artaxerxes I “was surnamed Longimanus, because his right hand was longer than his left.” Artaxerxes suffered from a disease called unilateral upper limb gigantism, which is associated with, but not strictly to, neurofibromatosis. Neurofibromatosis is rare and, according to researcher Hutan Ashrafian, “causes include congenital diseases, such as Proteus syndrome, Klippel-Trenaunay-Weber syndrome, neurofibromatosis, and macrodystrophia lipomatosa. They can also be acquired in cancers and lymphoedema.” Ashrafian makes the case that Neurofibromatosis may have been the cause of Artaxerxes’ deformity.
When it comes to the Parthian kings, Don Todman notes, “The nodule is first seen in the coins of Mithridates II (123–88BC) beneath the left eye and in the image of Orodes II (57–38BC) and in succeeding kings, including Phraates IV (38–2BC), the son of Orodes II. They appear on the faces of many but not all of the subsequent kings up to Vologases I (51BC–AD78) and Vardases II (55–AD58).”
Todman rules out the many other possibilities and further adds, “Neurofibromatosis, however, has a high degree of penetrance and autosomal dominant inheritance.” Todman concludes, “The lesions in the Parthian Kings is speculative” and that the “appearance of the nodule is consistent with Neurofibromatosis and the occurrence over multiple generations also accords with this hypothesis.” Therefore, the Arsacid dynasty may have used their genetic defect to strengthen their claim as the rightful heirs of the Persian Empire.
The name Arsaces is a Greek rendering of his Old Persian name Arshak, also rendered as Arsak, Asaac, or Asaak. The name Arsaces/Arshak suggests that he was of Saka/Scythian origin. This is due to the “Sac” or “Shak” found in his name. The Ar in Arshak quite possibly could mean Aryan in the Scythian language. In the Pahlavi dialect, the language of the Parthians, the word “Aryan” rendered as “Eran.” The “Er” in Pahlavi is said to mean “noble” or “warrior” and the suffix “an” attached to “Er” represents the relation. Thus, the name Eran can mean, “The noble race” or “the warrior race” along those lines.
Another interesting aspect is one coin in particular that bears Arsaces’ image, but on the reverse of the coin, it has the Aramaic inscription of krny, translated as “Karen” or “Quren”. This is where the debate comes in. Either krny means “Commander-in-Chief,” or it is in reference to one of the powerful Parthian clans known as the House of Karen. The coin also bears his name ΑΡΣΑΚΟΥ, translating as “Arsaces”. It seems to be the only coin of his minted like this.
Coin of Arsaces I of Parthia. The reverse shows a seated archer carrying a bow. A Greek inscription on the right reads ΑΡΣΑΚ[ΟΥ] (from the outside). The inscription below the bow is in Aramaic. (Public Domain)
One could read this coin to mean that Arsaces is from the House of Karen. However, other coins of Arsaces do not mention this but mention his name and title in Greek, not Aramaic.
The readings of these other coins say ΑΡΣΑΚΟΥ ΑΥΤΟΚΡΑΤΟΡΟΣ, translating as “Arsaces the Autocrat”. Both are plausible. If one considers Karen or Quren to mean “Commander-in-Chief,” it would be understandable for some coins bear the Greek inscription “Autocrat.” It would be true that an autocrat would be a commander-in-chief, for an autocrat is a ruler who holds unlimited power and is answerable to no other person, even though the possibility of the coin that says Karen and Arsaces may indicate a connection to the House of Karen.
Therefore, it seems plausible that ‘Karen’ found on the reverse of the coin is meant for the Aramaic speaking population at the time, in Parthia proper, indicating his authority rather than the house from which he came.
Other coins minted at the same time or later bear no Aramaic, but Greek instead. This is understandable, since Greek was the business and administrative language of the populace.
WHO WERE THE APARNI?
The name Aparni/Parni is Latin, while the Greeks referred to them as Aparnoi/Parnoi. However, there is a bit of dispute among historians over the names. Some historians believe the names are incorrect due to the Greek and Latin translations. The correct renderings could be Sparnoi, Apartanes, Eparns and Asparians. Since the names and translations are in dispute, we shall call them Aparni for now to avoid confusion.
The Aparni were a branch of the Dahae confederacy (central Asia, modern Turkmenistan), possibly a family clan of the tribe, and were said to have lived along the river Ochus, southeast of the Caspian Sea. What one can gather from the scant information provided is that the name Aparni may be incorrect, but the fact that they lived along the river Ochus and were a part of the Dahae confederacy remains undisputed.
Strabo is the only one who provides both tribe and ethnicity. Strabo states that Arsaces, “with some of the Däae (I mean the Aparnians, as they were called, nomads who lived along the Ochus), invaded Parthia and conquered it.” The Däae Strabo mentions are the Dahae. The first mention of the Dahae is found in Xerxes’ daiva inscription and they are described as a people he subdued during his reign. Nothing more follows. Herodotus was the next to mention the Dahae (Daans) and placed them among the tribes of the Persian nation:
“Now the Persian nation is made up of many tribes. Those which Cyrus assembled and persuaded to revolt from the Medes were the principal ones on which all the others are dependent. […]The rest of the Persian tribes are the following: the Panthialaeans, the Derusiaeans, the Germanians, who are engaged in husbandry; the Daans, the Mardians, the Dropicans, and the Sagartians, who are nomads.”
What else one can gather from this passage by Herodotus is that Cyrus was well aware of them before Xerxes. Herodotus account of the Dahae among the tribes of the Persian nation may have been “meant in a political, rather than an ethnic or linguistic sense, their Scythian identity poses no problem” as D. T. Potts mentions. While Herodotus provides little concerning their location, Strabo does.
Strabo provides three geographical accounts:
Those nomads (Dahae, however, who live along the coast on the left as one sails into the Caspian Sea are by the writers of today called Däae, I mean, those who are surnamed Aparni; then, in front of them, intervenes a desert country; and next comes Hyrcania, where the Caspian resembles an open sea to the point where it borders on the Median and Armenian mountains.
The Däae, some of them are called Aparni, some Xanthii, and some Pissuri. Now of these the Aparni are situated closest to Hyrcania and the part of the sea that borders on it, but the remainder extend even as far as the country that stretches parallel to Aria.
The Aparnian Däae were emigrants from the Däae above Lake Maeotis, who are called Xandii or Parii. But the view is not altogether accepted that the Däae are a part of the Scythians who live about Maeotis (Sea of Azov).
Ptolemy places the Dahae between “the regions of Margiana adjoining the River Oxus.” What Strabo and Ptolemy are indicating is that the Dahae traverse a rather large region that expands from the Black Sea to the Aral Sea and from Central Asia to Northern Iran.
Therefore, from the sources examined, it seems evident, that Arsaces was indeed of Saka/Scythian origin and was associated with the Dahae tribe. Whether Arsaces was a decedent of the ancient kings of Persia seeking to reclaim and restore the once mighty Persian Empire will remain unknown. While the possibility is considerable, the connection remains uncertain.
ARSACES’ INVASION OF BACTRIA AND PARTHIA
It would be naive to suggest that the fundamental cause of the Aparni invasion is clouded in mystery, impossible to answer, or cannot be determined. As mentioned earlier, Arrian states the invasion was “to avenge an insult offered to one of them.” While Arrian is probably correct, Strabo may have the answer. Therefore, in order to understand why Arsaces raided and eventually conquered Parthia, we must first look to Bactria.
Historians tend to agree that the passages of Strabo indicate that the invasion of Parthia was due to Diodotus’ victory over Arsaces, which in turn, caused Arsaces to flee into neighboring Parthia. However, Strabo’s passage is rather silent concerning an actual battle that took place. Some look to Strabo as an indicator of this victory over Arsaces, in which Arsaces was “in flight from the enlarged power of Diodotus.” This passage also does not directly say that Diodotus defeated Arsaces, but it hints at the possibility that there was conflict. But what kind of conflict needs to be answered.
What seems overlooked is what Arsaces did best, raiding. The first clue comes from Justin. Justin speaks of Arsaces as being, “accustomed to live by plunder and depredations.” Strabo also mentions this and states:
“These people agreed to pay a tribute on condition of having permission to overrun the country at stated times, and to carry away the plunder. But when these incursions became more frequent than the agreement allowed, war ensued, afterwards peace was made, and then again war was renewed. Such is the kind of life which the other Nomads also lead, continually attacking their neighbors, and then making peace with them.”
It is no question that Arsaces made his living by pillaging. But, according to Strabo, the pillaging taking place was against those who did not pay tribute.
In order to understand why Arsaces I, King and founder of the Arsacid dynasty raided and eventually conquered Parthia, we must first look to Bactria.
It is no question that Arsaces made his living by pillaging. But, according to Strabo, the pillaging taking place was against those who did not pay tribute.
As mentioned, it seems evident that Arsaces’ “flight from the enlarged power of Diodotus” could indicate two possibilities.
The first proposal is that Arsaces continued pillaging Bactrian villages and caravans along the trade routes. Because of this, Diodotus, who held a considerable amount of power, confronted Arsaces and drove him out.
The second proposal could be that Diodotus either met Arsaces or sent an envoy to make a quasi-peace treaty to receive temporary peace by providing tribute. Remember, Strabo mentions, “Such is the kind of life which the other Nomads also lead, continually attacking their neighbors, and then making peace with them.”
Either Arsaces’ periodic raiding ended with force or tribute, or perhaps a combination of both. But given the passages of historians Strabo and Justin, it would seem that Arsaces was confronted, did not engage militarily, but realized that the military forces of Bactria were a far stronger. Arsaces turned his forces around and headed back into his lands. While at Kopet Dagh, Arsaces received news that Andragoras, satrap (governor) of Parthia, had broken away.
Leaving the Empire
It would be hard to believe that Andragoras was unaware of the vulnerability he placed himself in by separating from the empire. Andragoras declared independence after receiving news of the unexpected death of Antiochus II, Greek king of the Hellenistic Seleucid Empire, in Ephesus. The satrap knew that the death of his king would lead to succession uncertainty and a potential war for the throne. Therefore, Andragoras detached himself from the empire until he felt comfortable enough to rejoin the fold.
However, Andragoras may have felt secure enough to declare independence knowing that Diodotus had driven out the Aparni. While Andragoras was unaware of what was taking place north of Parthia, Arsaces was well aware after presumably gaining intelligence on the situation from his spies and possibly from merchants. The news Arsaces received was favorable; the military forces under the command of Andragoras was weak and the Seleucid Empire was busy fighting other rivals.
Arsaces mustered his forces and “invaded Parthia with a band of marauders, overthrew Andragoras, the governor, and, after putting him to death, took upon himself the government of the country. Not long after, too, he made himself master of Hyrcania, and thus, invested with authority over two nations.”
After establishing his capital at Nisa or Asaak, Arsaces was fully aware that if he wanted to hold his newly conquered, lucrative provinces, he must build up his military strength and so “raised a large army, through fear of Seleucus and Diodotus, king of the Bactrians.”
Diodotus I Soter, leader of the Bactrians. (PHGCOM /CC BY-SA 3.0)
Arsaces knew that when the king of the Seleucids, Seleucus II, finished fighting in the west, he would make the trip east to recover former lands. Arsaces also feared his eastern neighbor Bactria, for even though Diodotus drove him from his territory, there was a chance Diodotus would invade.
Ancient site at Nisa, Turkmenistan. (Ljuba brank /CC BY-SA 3.0)
Unbeknownst to Arsaces was that Diodotus could do little outside his own satrapy. The reason for this was that if he were to enter the Parthian satrapy, he would be potentially incurring the suspicion of Seleucus II, which could lead to armed conflict. Because of this, Diodotus stayed put. Of course, this would imply that Diodotus was still loyal to the Seleucid crown. Perhaps he still was, at least to point. There is no doubt that Diodotus was slowly separating himself from the Seleucid fold during the reign of Antiochus II. But once Antiochus II died, Diodotus followed the lead of Andragoras of Parthia and declared independence shortly during the reign of Seleucus II.
SHIFTING POLITICS AND MILITARY MANEUVERS
It is possible that Diodotus not only bought off Arsaces, but also used him against Andragoras. However, this is unlikely. The probable reason as to why Diodotus did not left a finger was that not only did he fear the full force of the Seleucid Empire, but also he had not the military forces nor resources to invade, unhinge, confiscate, and hold onto Parthia and Hyrcania. However, one can also presume that Arsaces was just as ignorant of the military strength of Bactria, even after he increased his forces. But it was necessary for Arsaces to increase his military strength as he prepared for the possibility of a two-front war.
Therefore, Diodotus may have viewed Andragoras as a threat rather than an ally, because once Andragoras reunited with the Seleucid Empire, Diodotus feared that Seleucus II would mount a new campaign to recover the province of Bactria. One can assume that Diodotus welcomed the Aparni conquest of Parthia and Hyrcania. In this sense, Arsaces’ conquest of Parthia acted as a buffer between Bactria and the Seleucids, thus creating a potential ally for Diodotus since both kingdoms now had a common enemy.
A Parthian stucco relief of an infantryman, from the walls of Zahhak Castle, East Azarbaijan Province, Iran. (CC BY-SA 2.5)
Even though not written, Diodotus may have wanted to establish a peace treaty with Arsaces. However, Diodotus died before the establishment of such a treaty in 238 BCE. With Diodotus dead, his son, Diodotus II, quickly accepted a peace treaty with Arsaces. Justin mentions this and states, “Soon after, relieved by the death of Diodotus, Arsaces made peace and concluded an alliance with his son, also by the name of Diodotus.”
Arsaces reaching out to Diodotus II to agree to a peace treaty was paramount in allowing Arsaces to concentrate the bulk of his military forces in preparation for the Seleucid invasion. Moreover, even though the agreement between the two was a peace treaty, one can presume that the treaty was also an alliance, which would be crucial in assisting in the defense of their territories from King Seleucus II, who would eventually be on his way.
SELEUCUS’ ATTEMPT TO RETAKE FORMER LANDS
Before Seleucus II set out to retake the provinces of Parthia-Hyrcania and Bactria, he had to deal with another situation at home, which involved his brother, Antiochus Hierax. Antiochus Hierax had rebelled against his brother Seleucus in Asia-minor. This war between the two lasted from 239-236 BCE. Hierax’s decisive victory over Seleucus at Ancyra (modern Ankara, Turkey) sometime between 240-237 BCE sealed the deal, but it would not be until 236 BCE when Seleucus surrendered all of Asia-minor north of the Taurus Mountains to Hierax.
Coin of Seleucus II. Reverse shows Apollo leaning on a tripod. (Public Domain)
Seleucus’ loss of Asia-minor to his brother and the costly loss of territory to Ptolemy III during the Third Syrian War (246-241 BCE) undermined the unity of the empire. One can see why the eastern provinces broke away and declared independence. The continuous conflict, whether within the royal court or on the field of battle, kept the empire in constant uncertainty to the point that one either broke away and survived, or crashed and was left to an uncertain fate.
Seleucus knew that even though he might have been weak he could not afford more territorial losses. Further losses would destabilize the empire and encourage more breakaways, which in turn would entice his neighbors, like Ptolemaic Egypt, to gobble up more territory abundant with resources and the trade routes that passed through them.
With heavy losses in men, resources and territory, Seleucus took a gamble and decided to mobilize his forces for an eastern anabasis in hopes of retaking control of the crucial provinces of Parthia-Hyrcania.
Hyrcania and Parthia, and the section of the Royal Road noted by Herodotus. (CC BY-SA 2.5)
The reason for this is that when Arsaces conquered the provinces in question, he also captured the city of Hekatompylos, which lay astride the Royal Road linking Babylon and Seleucia on the Tigris to Bactria, and finally to India. Arsaces’ control over a portion of the Royal Road not only gave Arsaces control over the commercial traffic but also allowed the Parthians to intercept messages go to or coming from between the Seleucid and Bactrian kings.
Seleucus’ undertaking such an endeavor was both reckless and understandable. The reckless aspect of was that he quickly assembled his forces after suffering early defeats by Ptolemy III and Antiochus Hierax. Seleucus’ hasty military operation to recover former lands was a recipe for disaster. Either Seleucus was overconfident, desperate, or a combination of both.
The understandable aspect was his ambition to recover former lands, to exploit vital resources, and retake the trade routes that linked east with west back under the Seleucid umbrella, since most of the valuables enjoyed by the Greeks were coming through the eastern portions of the empire. If those provinces no longer belonged to the empire, the flow of wealth diminished.
The date of Seleucus’ anabasis is uncertain but possibly occurred between 236 and 229 BCE. But understand, there was not one invasion of Parthia but two.
WAR AND PEACE
Arsaces lay in his capital of Nisa, enjoying his newly conquered territory — but he was no fool. He understood that one day the Seleucid king would march east to recover former lands.
When word arrived that Seleucus was on his way, Arsaces quickly assembled his men and fled into the desert, taking up refuge with another nomadic tribe known as the Apasiacae, who were an offshoot of the Massagetae Scythians.
When Seleucus entered Parthia, he met with little resistance, one can presume, and reconquered his former provinces. As for how long he stayed in Parthia, this is unknown but it must not have been long, for shortly after entering Parthia, Seleucus was “recalled into Asia Minor by new disturbances.”
After some years had passed, Seleucus assembled another army and invaded Parthia a second time and was met with force. The outcome was an Arsacid victory. However, no detail of the battle exists. Moreover, it is possible that Diodotus II aided Arsaces in his victory over Seleucus. However, as mentioned already, details of the battle are silent, but there is an interesting passage written by Athenaeus in his Deipnosophists that speaks of Seleucus and “how he came against Media, and warred against Arsaces, and was taken prisoner by the barbarian, and how be remained a long time in captivity to Arsaces, being treated like a king.”
Frontispiece to the 1657 edition of the Deipnosophists, edited by Isaac Casaubon, in Greek and Latin. (Public Domain)
Athenaeus’ reference came from Posidonius (135-51 BCE). A further backing of Seleucus’ imprisonment is due to coins. Earlier coins that portray Seleucus before the invasion of Parthia depict a clean-shaven and well-kept Seleucus, while the later coins depict him with a beard like that of the Parthians. According to Polybius, “Seleucus surnamed Callinicus (glorious victory) or Pogon (bearded).” The coins depicting Seleucus and Polybius passage inform that Seleucus adopted the two epithets before and after capture. How long Seleucus remained in Parthia is unknown, but it is evident that he was freed and died sometime around 226/5 BCE.
How long Seleucus II was imprisoned will continue to be disputed, but what is known is that the Parthians, possibly aided by the Bactrians under Diodotus II, defeated Seleucus. He had no other choice but to lick his wounds and sign a treaty that recognized the authority of Arsaces as the rightful ruler of an independent Parthia not subject to Seleucid rule. The historian Justin says, “The Parthians observe the day on which it was gained with great solemnity, as the date of the commencement of their liberty.” How the Parthians observed their independence day is unknown, as well are the remaining years of Arsaces’ reign.
LONG LOST BROTHER
There is one issue, not yet addressed: Arsaces’ brother, Tiridates. Photius and Syncellus provide the only two sources that mention Tiridates.
A depiction of what is believed to be Tiridates I (Public Domain)
However, their accounts of Arsaces and Tiridates are amalgamated with older stories. One being that of King Darius I of Persia, while the other is similar to the founding of Rome. Photius says, “These two brothers, with five accomplices, slew Pherecles.” Seven men partook in the assassination of Pherecles (Andragoras) when you include Arsaces and Tiridates involvement. This is similar to the account of Darius who seized the Persian throne with the help from six others when they slew the imposter named Gaumata.
Syncellus says, “After two years Arsaces was killed, and his brother Teridates succeeded him as king, for 37 years.” Syncellus’ account is similar to the story and Romulus’ murder of Remus. Moreover, even Justin mentions the memory of Romulus as in a memorable comparison to Arsaces’ foundation of the Arsacid Dynasty:
“Thus Arsaces, having at once acquired and established a kingdom, and having become no less memorable among the Parthians than Cyrus among the Persians, Alexander among the Macedonians, or Romulus among the Romans, died at a mature old age”
Unlike Syncellus, Justin is a much older source that does not mention Arsaces dying at an early age. Moreover, Justin does not mention that Arsaces had a brother. What Justin does indicate is that Arsaces lived to be a ripe old age. If one were to take Syncellus’ account as true, what memory would the Parthian people have of a man who reigned for two years?
The sources that mention Tiridates are not in error, rather Syncellus is more likely in error suggesting that Arsaces reigned for two years and was murdered by his own brother. There is no doubt that Arsaces did have a brother by the name of Tiridates, but proof of that brother remind elusive until 1955, when an interesting Ostracon (pottery or stone piece with script), no. 2638 was found at the former Parthian capital of Nisa. However, the photos taken remained unknown to the world until 1986, when archaeologist S.D. Loginov (Institute of History, Turkmenistan Academy of Sciences) found them among the South-Turkmenistan archive.
Ostrakon of Cimon, an Athenian statesman, showing his name (as “Kimon [son] of Miltiades”) Representational image only. (CC BY-SA 2.5)
Once the inscriptions were translated, they gave a completely different picture of the Arsacid genealogy: ‘rsk MLK’ BRY BR[Y ZY pryp]tk BRY ‘HY BR[Y ZY] ‘rsk. When translated into English it reads, “Year 157, Arsak king, grandson Friyapatak’a. son of the nephew of Arsak’a.” The year 157 does not mean 157 BCE; rather it means 157 of the Arsacid era, which would be our 91 BCE.
Notice that three names or three kings are mentioned; the first being Arsaces, the next being his son Arsaces II, and the third, Friyapatak’a, who renamed himself Arsaces III once he ascended the throne. Notice as well that there is no mentioning of a Tiridates. This does not mean that Tiridates never existed, but what it does indicate is that Tiridates was never a king. Moreover, Friyapatak’a may in fact be Tiridates’ grandson, which would make him the great-nephew of Arsaces I.
After the imprisonment and release of Seleucus II, Arsaces’ rule over Parthia remained peaceful up until his death in 211 BCE. Afterwards, his son Arsaces II inherited the throne and a new threat as well.
Seleucus II died before Arsaces. He is said to have fallen from his horse around 226/5 BCE. Seleucus III inherited his father’s throne, only to be murdered after a short reign of three years, in 223 BCE. The person next up for the job was Antiochus III, the younger brother of Seleucus III. The future was in his hands.
Top Image: A rock-carved relief of Mithridates I of Parthia (r. c. 171–138 BC), seen riding on horseback. The Parthian rulers used the ancient Iranian art of Rock relief to mark the foundation of their new empire. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
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