Timur, historically known as Tamerlane (1336 – 1405), was a Turco-Mongol conqueror and the founder of the Timurid Empire in Persia and Central Asia. After having conquered much of the Near East, Timur decided to on a massive invasion of India. As he pushed across the lands, conquering, he declared:
“The people of Samana and Kaithal and Aspandi are all heretics, idolaters, infidels, and misbelievers. They had now set fire to their houses and had fled with their children and property toward Delhi, so that the whole country was deserted.”
In late December 1398, Timur left from the fort of Aspandi. After marching twenty miles, he arrived at the village of Taghlak-pur, which is opposite the fort of that same name. When the people of the fort heard of the approach of Timur’s army, they abandoned it and scattered throughout the country. Timur would learn that the people who fled were called Sanawi [that is, fire-worshippers, Zoroastrians, or Ghebers]. Timur saw these people as misbelievers and ordered that their houses be burned and their fort and buildings to be razed to the ground.
The next day, Timur marched to Panipat, where he encamped. There he found that, “in obedience to orders received from the ruler of Delhi, all the inhabitants had deserted their dwellings and had taken flight.” After his soldiers entered the fort, they reported to Timur that “they had found a large store of wheat, which I ordered to be weighed, to ascertain the real weight, and then to be distributed among the soldiers.”
Timur receives envoys during an attack on Balkh (Afghanistan) in 1370. Representational image. (Public Domain)
To Plunder and Destroy and Kill
From that day on, Timur and his forces continued to make their way through India where they pillaged, raped, and plundered, or in the words of Timur: “Their orders were to plunder and destroy, and to kill everyone they met.” The next day, his forces proceeded to the palace of Jahan-puma, which is five miles (eight kilometers) from Delhi. As they progressed “They plundered every village and place they came to, killed the men, and carried off all the valuables and cattle, securing much booty; after which they returned, bringing with them a number of Hindu prisoners, both male and female.”
After much fighting and bloodshed, Timur held a court and summoned the princes, amirs, and officers to his tent. Timur likely informed his men after all the information had been gathered and considered as to what their next move was. He praised his men for their obedience and bravery. Besides praising his men, he also cautioned them, stating:
“I therefore gave them instructions as to the mode of carrying on war; on making and meeting attacks; on arraying their men; on giving support to each other; and on all the precautions to be observed in warring with an enemy. I ordered the amirs of the right wing, the left wing, the van, and the center to take their proper positions, and cautioned them not to be too forward or too backward, but to act with the utmost prudence and caution in their operations.”
Afterwards, his men gave many blessings as they proceed from the tent. Timur knew that his men needed to hear some uplifting and cautionary words. It gave the officers confidence which could be distributed on down to the lower ranks and they were going to need it since Timur was very cautious.
The Problem of Prisoners
Before proceeding further, Timur had to make a decision on the one hundred thousand prisoners under his control. Timur feared that once he engaged the main enemy force, he would have to leave the prisoners in the rear with the gear. This was too dangerous, for the prisoners could revolt, find arms, and attack Timur from the rear during the battle. Therefore, Timur “immediately directed the commanders to proclaim throughout the camp that every man who had infidel prisoners was to put them to death, and that whoever neglected to do so, should himself be executed and his property given to the informer. When this order became known to the champions of Islam, they drew their swords and put their prisoners to death. One hundred thousand infidels, impious idolaters, were slain on that day.”
Timur’s army attacks the survivors of the town of Nerges, in Georgia, in the spring of 1396. Representational image. (Public Domain)
On 17 December 1398, Timur prepared his army for battle. His grandson, Prince Pir Mohammed was placed in charge of the right wing. Prince Sultan Hussein and Khalil Sultan, were placed in command of the left wing. The rear was placed on Prince Rusam, while Timur held the center. The Delhi Sultanate ruler Mahmud Tughluk (Nasir-ud-Din Mahmud Shah Tughluq) commanded the opposing army, which consisted of 10,000 horsemen, 40,000 infantry, and 125 elephants covered with armor, “most of them carrying howdahs in which were men to hurl grenades, fireworks, and rockets.”
Elephant with howdah of the Golconda Sultanate, Qutb Shahi dynasty. (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Two Powerful Armies Clash
The two armies confronted each other, the drums beating; shouts and cries were raised on both sides and the ground trembled. Part of the enemy force separated from the vanguard, “and when they perceived that Sultan Mahmud’s forces were approaching, they moved off to the right, and getting secretly behind the enemy’s advance-guard as it came on unsuspecting, they rushed from their ambush, and falling upon the foe in the rear, sword in hand, they scattered them as hungry lions scatter a flock of sheep, and killed six hundred of them in this single charge.”
Prince Pir Mohammad, who commanded the right wing, moved his forces forward, and with Amir Sulaiman Shah and his regiments, attacked the left wing of the enemy, which was commanded by Taghi Khan, and showered arrows upon them, which compelled them to take refuge in flight.
The left wing under Prince Sultan Husain, Amir Jahan Shah, Amir Ghiyas-ad-din, and other amirs, attacked the enemy’s right wing, which was commanded by Malik Mu’in-ad-din and Malik Hadi. They pressed with the “trenchant sword and piercing arrows that they compelled the enemy to break and fly. Jahan Shah pursued them, and attacked them again and again until they reached the gates of the city of Delhi.”
Simultaneously, Sultan Mahmud’s army at the center was more numerous and with its strong war elephants, made an attack upon Timur’s center, “where Prince Rustam, Amir Shaikh Nur-ad-din, Gateway of the mosque of Ala-ad-din at Delhi and their colleagues met it with a brave and resolute resistance. While they were thus engaged, Daulat Timur Tawachi, Mangali Khwaja, and other amirs came up with their respective forces and assailed the enemy.”
Timur then gave the order to a party of “brave fellows who were in attendance upon me, and they cut their way to the sides of the amirs, who were fighting in the forefront of the battle. They brought the elephant drivers to the ground with their arrows and killed them, after which they attacked and wounded the elephants with their swords. The soldiers of Sultan Mahmud and Mallu Khan showed courage in the fight, but could not withstand the onslaughts of Timur’s army. Seeing that the situation is bleak their “their courage fell and they took to flight.” Mahmud Tughluk army was defeated; “part was slain, and part had found refuge in the fort, toward which I marched, exalted with victory.” With the main threat vanquished, Timur made his way to Delhi.
The Devastating and Bloody Sack of Delhi
After this victory, Timur soon entered Delhi. At first, everything was going fine; many officials came forward to offer Timur gifts. While the regal ceremony and the state of affairs were taking place within the court, problems in the city were about to erupt. Below is the devastating recorded account of what happened to citizens of Delhi in 1398:
“On the sixteenth of the month (Dec. 26), certain incidents occurred which led to the sack of the city of Delhi and to the slaughter of many of the infidel inhabitants. One was this.
A party of fierce Turkish soldiers had assembled at one of the gates of the city to look about them and enjoy themselves, and some of them had laid riotous hands upon the goods of the inhabitants. When I heard of this violence, I sent some amirs, who were present in Delhi, to restrain the Turks, and a party of soldiers accompanied these officers into the city. Another reason was that some of the ladies of my harem expressed a wish to go into the city and see the Palace of a Thousand Columns which Malik Jauna had built in the fort called Jahanpanah.”
Ruins of East gate entry in to Begumpur Masjid (CC BY 2.0), Jahanpanah. The grand palace with its audience hall of beautifully painted wooden canopy and columns is vividly described but it does no longer exists.
“I granted this request, and I sent a party of soldiers to escort the litters of the ladies. Another reason was that Jalal Islam and other officials had entered Delhi with a party of soldiers to collect the contribution laid upon the city. Another reason was that some thousand troopers with orders for grain, oil, sugar, and flour had gone into the city to collect these supplies. Another reason was that it had come to my knowledge that great numbers of Hindus and infidels had come into the city from all the country round with their wives and children, and goods and valuables, and consequently I had sent some amirs with their regiments into Delhi and directed them to pay no attention to the remonstrances of the inhabitants, but to seize these fugitives and bring them out.”
“For these various reasons a great number of fierce Turkish troops were in the city. When the soldiers proceeded to apprehend the Hindus and infidels who had fled to Delhi, many of them drew their swords and offered resistance. The flames of strife thus lighted spread through the entire city from Jahan-panah and Siri to Old Delhi, consuming all they reached. The savage Turks fell to killing and plundering, while the Hindus set fire to their houses with their own hands, burned their wives and children in them, and rushed into the fight and were killed. The Hindus and infidels of the city showed much alacrity and boldness in fighting. The amirs who were in charge of the gates prevented any more soldiers from entering Delhi, but the flames of war had risen too high for this precaution to be of any avail in extinguishing them.”
View of Tohfe Wala Masjid in Siri Fort area near Shahpur Jat village (CC BY-SA 3.0)
“All day Thursday and throughout the night, nearly fifteen thousand Turks were engaged in slaying, plundering, and destroying.”
“When Friday morning dawned, my entire army, no longer under control, went off to the city and thought of nothing but killing, plundering, and making prisoners. The sack was general during the whole day, and continued throughout the following day, Saturday, the eventeenth (Dec. 27), the spoil being so great that each man secured from fifty to a hundred prisoners, men, women, and children, while no soldier took less than twenty. There was likewise an immense booty in rubies, diamonds, garnets, pearls, and other gems; jewels of gold and silver; gold and silver money of the celebrated Alai coinage; vessels of gold and silver; and brocades and silks of great value. Gold and silver ornaments of the Hindu women were obtained in such quantities as to exceed all account. Excepting the quarter of the Sayyids, the scholars, and the other Mussulmans, the whole city was sacked.
The pen of fate had written down this destiny for the people of this city, and although I was desirous of sparing them, I could not succeed, for it was the will of God that this calamity should befall the city.”
Timur, historically known as Tamerlane (1336 – 1405), was a Turco-Mongol conqueror and the founder of the Timurid Empire in Persia and Central Asia. Timur rose through the ranks by gaining the respect of local chieftains due to his personal valor in combat and his brigandage. His actions, whether raiding or in combat, caused many to flock to him. It was during a battle that arrows struck his right arm and leg which left him partially paralyzed. Because of this, Europeans referred to him as ‘Tamerlane’ or ‘Timur the Lame.’
Timur was born in Transoxania a member of Barlas tribe. He rose to power among the Ulus Chaghatay. The Ulus Chaghatay was nomadic tribal confederation that formed the central region of Mongolian Chaghadaid khanate. Timur’s story is similar to Genghis Khan; How true these stories are is up for debate.
Timur, not being related to Genghis Khan, could not bear the title Khan. Since he could not use the title, he decided to use politics to his advantage. While in the city of Balkh, (now northern Afghanistan), Timur quickly gained allies from among the merchants, peoples, and clergy due to sharing his loot with the locals, while the ruler, Husayn, who also happened to be Timur’s brother-in-law, was not viewed in with such praise. It may be that Husayn was a fine ruler; it is just that Timur had the capital to profit from his ambition.
The Chagatai Khanate and its neighbors in the late 13th century. (CC BY 3.0)
Timur challenged and defeated Husayn in 1370 and took his other wife, Saray Mulk Khanum, who was a direct descendent of Genghis Khan. This allowed him to become the indirect imperial ruler of the Chaghatay tribe. To strengthen his position further, he collected a number of princes from the various branches of the Genghisid branches.
Timur also used Islam to legitimize his position by praising and patronizing the Sufi sheikhs and ulama. He built religious monuments to both please the religious faith and at the same time show that he was favored by the supernatural due to his connection to Genghis Khan. Timur understood the power of charisma as well as using the fear of the divine to solidify his position.
Facing India: Soldiers, Elephants, Destroyers of Men!
By the time Timur had considered invading India 1398, he had already conquered most of the Near East. However, his appetite for conquest had not been quenched. He wanted more, and he desired India.
Timur had focused most of his military career on the west. With the west secured there was no remaining kingdom in that region that could really put a dent into his empire. Therefore, he looked east as he always had a desire to conquer China and bring it back under the fold of the Mongol Empire. However, India was closer; this multi-kingdom subcontinent bordered his empire. The grand prize in all this was the powerful kingdom of the Delhi Sultanate. Timur knew that the Kingdom of Delhi was no pushover, but given that it was weakened due to being in a state of civil war, made Delhi ripe for the sacking.
Asia in 1335, showing including Turco-Mongol culture nations such as the Golden Horde and the Chagatai Khanate. (Public Domain)
Timur’s desired to take Delhi as he felt not only would he secure his southern border, but also he would acquire the kingdom’s extraordinary amounts of wealth. That being said, selling the war was not so easy.
Timur ordered the princes and amirs to meet with him to see what they thought about making a military expedition into India. Most opposed the idea due to the prospective kingdom being of the same faith; others also feared that invading India was too ambitious of a task. Many were bewildered by this and stated “The rivers! And the mountains and deserts! And the soldiers clad in armor! And the elephants, destroyers of men!”
Prince Mohammad Sultan scolded the men and shamed them for such talk. Afterwards, he made a plea to their greed to uplift their spirits by stating:
“The whole country of India is full of gold and jewels, and in it there are seventeen mines of gold and silver, diamonds and rubies, emeralds and tin, iron and steel, copper and quicksilver, and many metals more; and among the plants which grow there are those fit for making wearing-apparel, and aromatic shrubs, and the sugar-cane; and it is a country which is always green and verdant, and the whole aspect of the land is pleasant and delightful. Now, since the inhabitants are chiefly polytheists and infidels and idolaters and worshippers of the sun, it is meet, according to the mandate of God and of His Prophet, for us to conquer them.”
Timur’s son, Shahrukh Mirza also made a statement, reminding the officers that “India is an extensive country. Whichever Sultan conquers it becomes supreme over the four corners of the globe. If under the conduct of our amir, we conquer India, we shall become rulers over the seven climes.”
The World Trembles, but the Khan Does Not
After much debate, Timur decided to go ahead and prepare for a massive invasion. While he readied his forces, he sent Prince Pir Mohammed Jahangir ahead to place the holy city of Multan (located in present-day Pakistan) under siege.
Multan is famous for its large number of Sufi shrines, including the unique rectangular tomb of Shah Gardez that dates from the 1150s and is covered in blue enameled tiles typical of Multan. (Junaidahmadj/CC BY-SA 3.0)
While this was ongoing, Timur ordered for the assembly of ninety thousand troops. To make sure everyone was on board, Timur called for a qurultay, which is a meeting with all the princes, chiefs, and other officials to inform them what his intentions were.
Although the true faith is observed in many places in India, the greater part of the Kingdom is inhabited by idolaters. The Sultans of Delhi have been slack in their defense of the Faith. The Muslim rulers are content with the collection of tribute from these infidels. The Koran says that the highest dignity a man can achieve is to make war on the enemies of our Religion. Mohammed the Prophet counselled like wise. A Muslim warrior thus killed acquires a merit which translates him at once into Paradise.
Timur also made it clear that they should fear him and his army for “most of Asia are under our domination, and the world trembles at the least movement we make.” Timur also saw destiny on his side and believed he had been blessed with favorable opportunities. Because of this, his armies rode “south, not east. India through her disorders has opened her doors to us.”
Timur sent a letter addressed to Sarang Khan of Dipalpur with a possible deal:
If the rulers of Hindustan come before me with tribute, I will not interfere with their lives, property, or kingdoms; but if they are negligent in proffering obedience and submission, I will put forth my strength for the conquest of the realms of India. At all events, if they set any value upon their lives, property, and reputation, they will pay me a yearly tribute; and if not, they shall hear of my arrival with my powerful armies. Farewell.
Sarang Khan replied:
It is difficult to take an empire to your bosom, like a bride, without trouble and difficulty and the clashing of swords. The desire of your prince is to take this kingdom with its rich revenue. Well, let him wrest it from us by force of arms if he be able. I have numerous armies and formidable elephants, and am quite prepared for war.
Preparing for War
The armies of Timur were unlike those of the 14th-century Muslim states and closer to that of Genghis Khan and his successors. Timur’s military leadership may have started with an arban at the bottom of the chain. The next part is pure speculation. One can assume, without certainty, that every Timurid warrior belonged to an arban. An arban consisted of 10 men with one being the commander. Ten arbans equals one jagun (plural jaghut) consisting of 100 men. Ten jagunt consist of 1,000 men and form a minqan (plural minqat). Ten minqat form one tumen (plural tumet) consisting of 10,000 men.
While Timur decidedly used the old Mongol system, it is uncertain as to whether or not he used the same traditional names. As for the size of Timur’s army marching into India, this remains debatable. Some say the army prepping for invasion into India was roughly between 90,000-100,000 or 40,000-45,000 troops. It might be safe to say that the army that sacked Delhi was roughly 60,000 strong.
If Timur’s army was purely cavalry based (and no infantry as some sources suggest), one can speculate that the number of horses each warrior had; perhaps five mounts at his disposal. If so, an army of 40,000 to 45,000 would have required 200,000 to 225,000 mounts, while an army of 90,000 to 100,000 would have needed 450,000 to 500,000 mounts. Two hundred thousand mounts would many square miles of grass per day on the plains. Hydration was also crucial, and the horses would require millions of gallons of water a day. To ensure that the horses had food and water, Timurid scouts, far ahead of the main army, searched for suitable grazing ground that supplied ample food and water. Timur’s best option to feed his army in areas less suitable was to raid nearby villages in enemy territory.
Once Timur and his forces pushed out in March 1398, his advanced guard and right wing were under the command of his grandson, Pir Mohammed. Pir Mohammed moved his forces into a less confined area as he pushed into Punjab. Once in Punjab, his mission was to capture Multan. With Pir Mohammed was busy in Punjab, Timur’s other grandson Mohammed Sultan, marched by way of Lahore. Timur, took a more difficult route, with a much smaller force into the Hindu Kush before making his way south to join his main force east of the Indus by September.
Once December arrived, Timur declared:
For my intended attack on Delhi in this same year 800 A.H. (1398 AD), I arranged my forces so that the army extended over a distance of twenty leagues. Being satisfied with my disposition of the troops, I began my march on Delhi. On the twenty-second of Rabi’-al-awwal (Dec. 2) I arrived and encamped at the fort of the village of Aspandi, where I found, in answer to my inquiries, that Samana was seven leagues distant.
The people of Samana and Kaithal and Aspandi are all heretics, idolaters, infidels, and misbelievers. They had now set fire to their houses and had fled with their children and property toward Delhi, so that the whole country was deserted.
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
Appian. Appian’s Roman History, trans. Horace White, 4 vols. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958.
Debevoise, Neilson Carel. A Political History of Parthia. Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press, 1938.
Dio Cocceianus, Cassius. Dio’s Roman History, trans. E Cary, Loeb Classical Library, 9 vols. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1954.
Farrokh, Kaveh. Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2007.
Graham, Daryn. Rome and Parthia: Power, Politics, and Profit . North Charleston, South Carolina: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013.
Josephus, Flavius. The Complete Works of Josephus, trans. William Whiston. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1990.
Justinus, Marcus Janianus. Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus, Trans. John Selby Watson. London: Henry G. Bohn, York Street, Convent Garden, 1853.
Paterculus, Velleius. The Roman History, trans. Frederick W. Shipley. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press , 1961.
Pliny, H. Rackham, W. H. S. Jones, and D.E. Eichholz. The Natural History. London: Folio Society, 2011.
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.
Top Image: Deriv; Man With Cap, Probably Scythian, Bamiyan 3-4th Century (PHGCOM/CC BY-SA 3.0) and Gold Scythian neckpiece (FreeArtLicence)
Madyes, the mysterious Scythian stepped onto the world stage. There is not a great deal of information about him, nor has his name turned up in any of the Assyrian tablets. Herodotus and Strabo are the only two writers who mention him other than Arrian, who refers to him as “Idanthyrsus.”
Herodotus provides the most information about Madyes. Most historians have read and used Herodotus’ work for their research in dealing with this matter. But what if Herodotus was wrong? This would not be a new statement by any means nor is it to meant to demean Herodotus’ work. So let us look at Herodotus’ chronology from the Scythian invasion to the massacre of the Scythians by Cyaxares.
According to Herodotus, Madyes was the son of Bartatua (Protothyes) but there is no concrete evidence for this even though some suggest he is the son of Bartatua and the Assyrian Princess. Unfortunately, no evidence says Esarhaddon handed over his daughter in marriage. That is not to say it is not possible, but it has a high likelihood of being improbable.
Herodotus tells us that Madyes “burst into Asia in pursuit of the Cimmerians whom they had driven out of Europe, and entered the Median territory.” This seems to be true to a certain extent, except for the fact that Madyes drove the Cimmerians from the battle into Europe rather than from Europe into Asia and not in the migratory sense. The sources provided by Herodotus and Strabo, along with Ashurbanipal’s inscriptions, do attest that Dugdammi’s defeat was by an outside element close to his borders and of the same ethnic stock, as both Herodotus and Strabo provide. Therefore, either Ashurbanipal paid for Madyes’ services or it is true that Bartatua married an Assyrian princess to strengthen Assyrian-Scythian relations through Bartatua’s son, Madyes. Madyes would become king of the Scythians and most likely was the nephew of Esarhaddon and cousin to Ashurbanipal, if this is true.
Now, Madyes was not king of all the Scythians, Umman-manda, or Cimmerians. However, it does seem that Madyes had a large army and possibly many provinces. His influence proved effective enough to sway Assyrian politics, as Bartatua had done to a certain degree. After Madyes took his father’s throne, Ashurbanipal may have asked him to deal with Dugdammi. Thus, according to Herodotus, Madyes defeated and chased the remaining forces of Dugdammi out of Asia and into Europe.
Herodotus goes on to say, “The Scythians, having thus invaded Media, were opposed by the Medes, who gave them battle, but, being defeated, lost their empire. The Scythians became masters of Asia.” After Madyes effectively defeated Dugdammi in 639 BCE, he thus sets off to conquer the eastern half of Dugdammi’s empire. The eastern half of Dugdammi’s empire would be the regions of Media and Mannea. Thus, the Scythians under Madyes took full control of Dugdammi’s empire. Therefore, to say, “The Scythians became masters of Asia” is incorrect and correct. It is incorrect to say the Scythians are the masters when they already had been, under Dugdammi, but it is correct to say the Scythians and other nomads have a new master by the name of Madyes.
The Scythians continued to push on conquering, for Herodotus states:
After this they marched forward with the design of invading Egypt. When they had reached Palestine, however, Psammetichus the Egyptian king met them with gifts and prayers, and prevailed on them to advance no further.
When Psammetichus became king of Egypt in 664 BCE, Assyria still held a tight grip over the country, which he was able to shake off over time, allowing him to reunite Egypt. Ashurbanipal could do little about the events transpiring in Egypt, since his borders were already buckling under pressure from systematic warfare with neighboring states. Thus, Ashurbanipal effectively pulled out of Egyptian affairs. Whether he removed Assyrian troops out of Egypt is a matter of debate, for the Assyrian inscriptions are silent on this matter, other than some reliefs that depict the issues going on in Egypt.
Assyrian troops would pull out of Philistia and the northern portions of what used to be the Northern Kingdom of Israel around 640 BCE. With Assyrian troops effectively gone from the region, Psammetichus moved into Philistia around 640 BCE, while King Josiah of Judah pushed north to retrieve the remnants of Israel shortly after 630 BCE. As for the Scythian invasion of Palestine, the year remains uncertain, but some suggest 626 BCE or shortly after.
The reason for the Scythian invasion of Palestine seems to be due in part to the destabilization of the Assyrian Empire shortly after Ashurbanipal’s death in 631 BCE. This led to the rise of his son Ashur-etil-ilani. Ashur-etil-ilani’s reign would be very short and much undocumented. Ashur-etil-ilani would be deposed of in 627 BCE by a usurper named Sin-shumu-lishir, who reigned on the throne for a year or less. With this transfer of power through what looks to be a coup d’état, the Assyrian Empire was fractured and open to foreign conquest.
Egypt at that time had been spreading its sphere of influence throughout Palestine, but how much land they controlled the further they pushed north remains unknown. It seems possible that when Sinsharishkun recaptured the throne in 626 BCE, he sent messengers to the Scythians and Cimmerians to check the Egyptian advancement. But once the Scythians arrived on the scene they were paid off by the Pharaoh, as Herodotus mentions. Another alternative as to why the Scythians may have pressed on into Palestine is that they felt the pressure of the Egyptian advancement northward. Remember, the Scythians had hegemony over the lands to the north of Palestine and felt the need to attack or at least check out their new neighbor. If so, then the Egyptians must have made an impression, for they paid off the Scythians with either a handsome gift or tribute.
Herodotus’ description shows that the Egyptians were weak in terms of military power but were rich in treasure, and therefore were able to bribe the Scythians from pillaging or conquest. In doing this, the Egyptians had exposed themselves, admitting their vulnerability, but at the same time showed their value. Treasure defeated the potential threat and allowed Egypt to carry on unopposed from the nomadic north to fight another day. The amount of money given to the Scythians must have been great, but some decided to pillage “the temple of Celestial Aphrodite” at Ascalon, where “female sickness” overcame some few of the greedy. Those suffering from the curse would be deemed, “Enarees.”
Many do not accept the Scythian invasion of Palestine, finding the “female sickness” too similar to the story found in the book of I Samuel of how the Philistines got hemorrhoids in the same area that the Scythians would pass through later on. Tales can be intermingled over time. Another argument is that the Scythians were Assyrian mercenary troops assigned to certain posts to guard Assyria’s interests and borders. This I agree with somewhat, as indicated earlier, for Assyria had pulled out of the region before the invasion took place, while others just outright reject the whole invasion. However, I do think the Scythians really did invade Palestine, for “female sickness” is our clue.
Female sickness, according to Herodotus created Enarees. The Enarees were women-like men who were soothsayers or prophets who received training from the goddess Aphrodite. These Enarees were not homosexual or transvestite, but rather transsexual, as implied by the Roman poet Ovid. Ovid tells us that these Enarees were young boys who had been castrated and says, “Ah me, that you, neither man nor woman, serve the lady; you who can’t know the mutual delights of Venus! Whoever first cut off a boy’s genitals, that one, who made the wound, should suffer it himself.” Ovid, in book 1 section 8 of the Amores, explains further concerning the process of male to female transsexual gender change. “She’s a witch, mutters magical cantrips, can make rivers run uphill, knows the best aphrodisiacs – When to use herbal brews, or the whirring bullroarer, How to extract that stuff from a mare in heat.” The women are really men, and the urine that mares in heat produced allowed them to look more feminine, as Ovid explains. He tells the men to avoid this, and states, “Put no faith in herbals and potions, abjure the deadly stuff distilled by a mare in heat.” This deadly stuff is mare’s urine. The urine from a pregnant mare is high in estrogen levels and helps males develop female sexual characteristics.
Herodotus is partially right in his statement that the Scythians pillage the temple of Aphrodite at Ascalon. Nevertheless, the temple of Aphrodite Herodotus mentions most likely was the temple of the goddess Atargatis, where emasculation was practiced among the cult followers.
The followers of Atargatis, particularly men, would dance to the music and work themselves into a frenzy of wild behavior. During the music and orgies, from among the onlookers of the frenzy, a young man taken up in the emotions of the frenzy would strip off his clothes, pick up a sword, and make a loud shout in the midst of the crowd, then castrate himself before the onlookers. Then he would run through the streets carrying his testicles in hand and from whatever house he threw his testicles in, he would receive women’s garb to wear in order to join the temple priesthood of Atargatis.
Notice that the priesthood of Atargatis is similar to the soothsayers and prophets of the Scythians. Both are castrated, both dress as women and have woman-like features. Thus, the few Scythians that pillaged the city or temple of Ascalon may not have pillaged the temple at all, but might have been caught up in the Atargatis cult. A few, if not all who were there, castrated themselves and brought the practice home, and Herodotus and many others would describe this later on. Therefore, the Scythian invasion of Palestine is proved by these two descriptions of the adoption of a local religious practice.
Besides the Scythian invasion of Palestine, Herodotus continues to explain that the Scythians went on to become masters of Media for the next twenty-eight years. That rule would end when Cyaxares invited the leaders to a banquet, rendered them defenseless by getting them drunk with wine and massacred them. Afterward, the Medes regained their empire.
Herodotus says that King Madyes reigned for those twenty-eight years, but I doubt it. If Madyes reigned for twenty–eight years, he would have to start at the death of Dugdammi, which was around 640/39 BCE, and when you subtract twenty-eight years we come to either 612/11 BCE as the year of Madyes death. But if we take The Fall of Nineveh Chronicle into account, then Madyes would have to have died much earlier, because the first time we read of Cyaxares is in The Fall of Nineveh Chronicle, and according to its chronology, Cyaxares arrived on the scene in 614 BCE. Thus, Madyes was dead and his reign over Asia after defeating Dugdammi did not last twenty-eight years as Herodotus says. Therefore, Cyaxares was free to go about his business in Asia unopposed as no Scythian threat seems near or far, and it could be argued that the Scythians, who did not oppose Cyaxares, joined his forces.
Whether or not the Scythians controlled the whole of Asia for twenty-eight years is true to some extent if you consider Dugdammi and add the reign of Madyes; then you have twenty-eight years and more. Now, this is not to say Herodotus is wrong, but if one considers that from the time Nineveh fell in 612 BCE to the Battle of the Eclipse or Halys, then you would get twenty-eight years. The notion of the Medes led by Cyaxares conquering a portion of Anatolia while bringing on the downfall of Urartu may in fact have been an invention of Herodotus.
Robert Rollinger’s paper, The Median “Empire”, the End of Urartu and Cyrus’ the Great Campaign in 547 B.C. (Nabonidus Chronicle II 16), makes a great argument that it was not the Medes who made their presence felt in Anatolia, but rather the Babylonians. This is shown in the inscription provided from The Fall of Nineveh Chronicle during the seventeenth year (609 BCE) of Nabopolassar’s reign:
The king of Akkad went to help his army and … [ … ] he went up [to] Izalla and / the numerous cities in the mountains … [ … ] he set fire to their [ … ] / At that time the army of [ … ] / [ma]rched / as far as the district of Urartu. / In the land … [ … ] they plundered their [ … ].
The Babylonians in 608-607 BCE continued to attack Urartu and the surrounding area including eastern Anatolia, and according to the inscriptions, acted alone, without the help from the Medes, during the eighteenth year of Nabopolassar’s reign. Overall, The Fall of Nineveh Chronicle supports a Babylonian domination of the north, including portions of eastern Anatolia. This does not mean that the Babylonians occupied or controlled the lands mentioned;, rather they are the only ones named as having conducted military activities in the areas and having some influence over the regions for a time. At least until the arrival of Cyrus the Great in which the Nabonidus Chronicle mentions that in 547 BCE Cyrus attacked and conquered the Kingdom of Urartu, leaving behind a garrison to watch over his newly acquired territory.
Therefore, I agree with Rollinger’s conclusion concerning Herodotus and the Halys River in which he states, “Herodotus’ image of the Median “Empire” has been modeled to a high degree on the Achaemenid Empire and the Halys border seems to be a much later invention.”
Beside the twenty-eight year domination by the Scythians, Herodotus goes on further to say:
The dominion of the Scythians over Asia lasted eight-and-twenty years, during which time their insolence and oppression spread ruin on every side. For besides the regular tribute, they exacted from the several nations additional imposts, which they fixed at pleasure; and further, they scoured the country and plundered every one of whatever they could.
This description is usual applied to Madyes. However, Herodotus may be attributing to Maydes acts described in the passage carried out by someone else, such as Dugdammi. Assyrian sources remain silent about Madyes and the troubles that came with him.
If Madyes did do the things that Herodotus suggests, whom did it affect? The civilizations of Mesopotamia and Palestine, particularly Judah, seem to have escaped this ransacking. Egypt did pay a fee to the Scythians during what would have been the rule of Madyes. However, if we consider Dugdammi, mentioned in Assyrian sources, then we may have a case, for the Assyrians feared Dugdammi and it seems if anyone could get Assyria to pay tribute, Dugdammi would have been the person to do so. But even the Assyrians mention Dugdammi paying tribute to them. Therefore, I would suggest that the statement made by Herodotus is in fact much broader than he realized. In other words, if you consider the Scythians and Cimmerians from Esarhaddon to Ashurbanipal, you will find these nomadic peoples raiding and pillaging whoever they can whether it is Assyria, Lydia, or others in their vicinity. This is not to say Herodotus is wrong, but rather he is right in one sense and that is the Scythians and Cimmerians did in fact, regardless of the leader mentioned or not, before Madyes, pillage and raid. Madyes is not the pillager who is forcing tribute with ease as Herodotus tells.
As for the Scythian dominion that Herodotus speaks of, I do question whether the Scythians ruled as a single entity. It seems more plausible that they controlled Asia, not as a centralized united empire, but rather as a loose tribal community that goes about their own business, unless an outside element threatens their pastures and way of life. Consider the Assyrian inscriptions earlier in the book: the Assyrians name names, but none of chieftains seem to hold a firm grip on their own people, other than those tribes who are sympathetic to rebellion against Assyria. Once again, the only true Scythian king, according to Assyrian sources, was Dugdammi, but I am skeptical about Madyes kingship over the nomadic peoples.
During the Scythian-Cimmerian presence in Asia, most of the conquered or neighboring peoples would adopt the manners and customs of the Scythians and Cimmerians. The Assyrians, Babylonians, and others may have sent selected trainees to go to the Scythians to learn certain military skills, such as with bows and arrows, much desired by the regional powers, particularly Assyria, and then Babylonia. Thus, Scythianization became the trend from Asia Minor to the Indus valley and from the Caucasus to the Persian Gulf for twenty-eight or more years. Once King Madyes died, Cyaxares hosted a banquet and invited the many Scythian chieftains, possibly in order to debate who should be king. However, the question remains, why did Cyaxares go on to massacre them?
Cyaxares invited Scythians of noble status and possibly many others, including those of non-Scythian birth. Every nomadic nation within the confines of the loosely held Scythian confederation was invited to dine and debate. As for the massacre, not everyone at the banquet was murdered.
I would suggest that the only people targeted were those that supported a continuation of an alliance with Assyria, or would protect Assyria in a time of crisis. This would be due to treaties and loyalty oaths that may have been undertaken when Madyes was alive and Assyria needed extra help in dealing with Dugdammi. The massacre that took place does not mean that Cyaxares hated the Scythian lords, but rather their continued policy of supporting the Assyrians. Remember, Cyaxares had no blood ties with the country, nor treaties or oaths to tie him to the Assyrians. Cyaxares most likely understood that a continued alliance with Assyria was dangerous due to its history of instability with neighboring countries.
There is an alternative to consider concerning the massacre: fratricide. This may be farfetched speculation, but Cyaxares actually may have been killing his brothers or cousins to acquire the throne of Madyes. Therefore, it is possible that the father of Cyaxares was Madyes.
With a weakened Assyria stumbling around due to all the previous conflicts conducted by Ashurbanipal, the time was right for war. Once the personages of power who supported Assyria were removed, Cyaxares drove out the remainder who escaped execution. The forces of Cyaxares must have been in hot pursuit of those who did not yield to his rule. Cyaxares was in charge with no real threat to challenge him since both Madyes and Ashurbanipal were now dead. Cyaxares most likely thanked the gods that these “two birds” had been killed with one stone.
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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The steppe has produced many notable horse archers who brought terror and devastation to the known world during ancient times. But of the many steppe peoples who penetrated the civilized world, none brought more destruction then the Huns.
Sometime during the mid-to-late fourth century, the Huns pushed westward. While on the move, they encountered the Alans. The Huns quickly engaged and slaughtered them. The Huns made an alliance with the survivors. With the Alans riding alongside the Huns, they headed towards the lucrative lands of Goths, particularly that of Greuthungs, led by King Ermanaric, sometime in the 370’s. The attack was so swift and relentless that the Goths could not halt their progress. Ermanaric could do little to thwart the Hun advance, and in despair, he committed suicide. With Ermanaric dead, another took his place by the name of Vithimiris. Vithimiris continued the fight, even hiring Hun mercenaries. However, it was all in vain. Vithimiris could not defeat the Huns and eventually lost his life in 376.
Huns in battle with the Alans. An 1870s engraving after a drawing by Johann Nepomuk Geiger. (Public Domain)
A suggested path of Hunnic movement westwards. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
With Vithimiris dead, Alatheus and Saphrax took charge, as Viderichus, the son of Vithimiris, was too young to rule. Rather than to continue fighting the Huns, they led the Greuthungs to the Danube River in 376. Furthermore, the names Alatheus and Saphrax appear Alanic, and may have been of a Sarmatian/Alan origin.
The Seeds of Destruction
Besides the Greuthungs, the Thervingi Goths, led by Fritigern and Alavivus, also joined them to escape the Huns, and in hopes of seeking asylum in the Eastern Roman Empire. The total number of refugees is disputed. The fourth century Greek sophist and historian Eunapius indicates that 200,000 Goths appeared along the Danube, while Peter Heather suggests roughly 100,000. Whatever the number, the impact was great, not only on the Goths but also the Eastern Roman Empire. Two years after arriving at the Danube, the Goths were allowed to enter into Eastern Roman territory. Once established, the Roman provincial commanders Lupicinus and Maximus took advantage of the refugees, leading the Goths to revolt which ended in a Gothic victory at the Battle of Adrianople in 378.
“Grande Ludovisi” sarcophagus, with battle scene between Roman soldiers and Goths. (Public Domain)
While the Battle of Adrianople on the surface has nothing to do with the Huns, most important is what lies beneath. The Goths, over a period of years, would not have trickled to the Danube, seeking asylum into the Eastern Roman Empire had it not been for the menace from the east.
What the Goths knew the Romans brushed off. In the words of Ammianus: “The seed-bed and origin of all this destruction and of the various calamities inflicted by the wrath of Mars, which raged everywhere with unusual fury, I find to be this: the people of the Huns.”
The Hunnic Invasion
The Huns were a steppe nomadic confederation that arrived in the area of the Black Sea sometime during the 370’s. These strange invaders were not like other peoples in the area. Everything from their physical appearance to their mode of warfare was new and terrifying to the Barbarians in their path, and to the civilization of Rome who would soon encounter them.
The origin of the Huns is disputed. The ancient writers spoke little of origin and more on description and location. The Roman soldier and historian, Ammianus Marcellinus, wrote on the Huns during the fourth century. He states that the Huns dwell “beyond the Maeotic Sea (Sea of Azov) near the ice-bound ocean, exceed every degree of savagery.” As for origins, he states that little is known from “ancient records” about the Huns. The Huns were just as much a mystery to the Romans as the Romans were to the Huns. The theologian and historian, St. Jerome (347–420), equated the Huns with the Scythians of old mentioned by Herodotus. Around the time of Jerome, another theologian and historian by the name of Paulus Orosius wrote, “the Huns, long shut off by inaccessible mountains, broke out in a sudden rage against the Goths and drove them in widespread panic from their old homes.”
Even though the ancient writers had a vague sense of the Huns origins, they knew enough that the Huns originated beyond the Ural Mountains. But who they were for certain east of Ural’s remains disputed. A number of modern historians believe that Xiongnu, a nomadic people who inhabited the eastern steppe according to ancient Chinese sources, from the third century BCE to the late second century CE, were precursors of the Huns. Linking the Huns to the Xiongnu, while possible, still, leaves a large gap of 300 years’ worth of lost history.
As Hyun Jin Kim states, “Thus to refer to Hun-Xiongnu links in terms of old racial theories or even ethnic affiliations simply makes a mockery of the actual historical reality of these extensive, multiethnic, polyglot steppe empires.” Therefore, the Huns were nothing more than a group of elite warriors of a ruling class in an alliance with various nomadic tribes seeking plunder, extracting tribute, and expanding their sphere of influence.
To understand the Huns mode of warfare one must try to understand their way of life. According to Marcellius, the Huns “are subject to no royal restraint, but they are content with the disorderly government of their important men, and led by them they force their way through every obstacle.” The Huns initially were not a united tribe with a king when they first appeared in the west. Rather, the Huns were a tribe that amalgamated with many other nomadic tribes, like the Alans and non-nomadic tribes, such as the Germanic Suevi, Gepids, and Goths, through conquest. However, this is not always the case. Many nomadic tribes probably joined the Hunnic warbands after noticing their ability to profit from pillaging, and decided they want in on the cut. This is not to say that the Huns did not have a powerful chieftain, just that the chieftain’s power was limited.
The Huns and their tribal allies worked semi-independently under their own chieftains but were loyal to a primary Hun chief. Of course, this would change when Attila took power much later. But even as king, Attila’s power was excessive in the moment and uncertain in the long term. Attila, unlike previous powerful chieftains, strong-armed the lesser chieftains by forcing them to swear loyalty to him or be removed. By doing this, he effectively transformed the Huns from a body in search of plunder or seeking payment to serve as mercenaries, into a single body bent on expanding a sphere of influence through conquest, threats, and extortion. While Attila’s short-term strategy focused on the moment, his long-term strategy for the Hunnic nation was nonexistent. The reason for this is that the Huns were not in the business to create, they were in the business of war. Therefore, one must focus on the Hunnic military machine to gain a better understanding as to why they were so decisive on the battlefield.
Hardy Hunnic Horses
According to Ammianus, the Huns were “glued to their horses, which are hardy, it is true, but ugly.” While Ammianus found the Hunnic horse hardy and ugly, the late fourth century Roman writer Vegetius Renatus also found their horses beautifully unappealing.
The Hunnic horses:
“have a great and crooked head, bulging eyes, narrow nostrils, broad jaws and cheek-bones, strong and stiff necks, manes hanging below the knees, overlarge rib, curved backs, bushy tails, cannon bones of great strength, small pasterns, wide-spreading hooves, hallow loins, their bodies are angular, no fat on the rump or the muscles of the back, their stature inclining to length than to height, the belly drawn, the bones huge. The very thinness of these horses is pleasing, and there is beauty even in their ugliness.”
While the physical appearance of the Hunnic horse did not always sit well in the eyes of the beholder, its characteristics did. Vegetius states that for “the purposes of war, the Huns’ horses are by far the most suitable, on account of their endurance, working capacity and their resistance to cold and hunger.” He further adds that “one forgets the ugly appearance of these horses as this is set off by their fine qualities: their sober nature, cleverness and their ability to endure any injuries very well.”
The breed of horse the Huns rode is uncertain. They may have been the ancestors of the modern Mongolian horse. The Huns likely rode mares as opposed to Stallions. If so, the Hunnic mares, like that of the Mongols, would have stood at 127cm (50 inches) high.
This choice meant that Hunnic riders could use the mares’ milk as an additional food supplement on the steppe, and the mares could be milked four to five times a day. Moreover, mares are easier to control than stallions, especially when the mare is in heat. Stallions can be easily distracted when a mare is in heat or just present. This gave the Huns, among other steppe nomads, a tactical advantage on the battlefield. Therefore, riders of the stallions had to be extra vigilant to restrain the steeds from chasing the mares.
The most important item for a rider to function proper in the saddle is the stirrup. Stirrups allow the rider to stay in the saddle comfortably and to control his mount. In others words, horse and rider become one. A bigger question often asked when dealing with the Huns is whether the Huns used stirrups. Unfortunately, Hunnic stirrups are nonexistent. Not even the Roman writers during the period ever mentioned the Huns possessing them. However, this is not to say they never used them. If the Huns did use stirrups, they must have been made from perishable materials, such as wood or leather.
The fifth century poet, letter-writer, politician, and bishop Sidonius Apollinaris, wrote an interesting description on the horsemanship of the Huns, stating, “Scarce has the infant learnt to stand without his mother’s aid when a horse takes him on his back. You would think the limbs of man and beast were born together, so firmly does the rider always stick to the horse.” Sidonius description does not mention the use of stirrups but rather their limbs to guide the horse. Overall, whether the Huns used stirrups will go unanswered until a Hunnic grave is discovered bearing such contents that suggest otherwise.
Nomadic Pazyryk horseman in a felt painting from a burial around 300 BC. (Public Domain)
The saddle was another important feature as it was a supportive structure for the rider, which fastened to the horse’s back by a girth. The Hunnic double-horned saddle was a wooden framework covered in leather, sometimes embroidered. The double-horned saddle proved the rider a stable seat from which he could fire his arrows. A felt sweat cloth was placed under the pack saddle after which a saddle-blanket was laid over it. As for their horse bridles, the cheek pieces were made of iron or horn.
Top Image: Reenactors of Hunnic Warriors of the Steppe (CC BY-SA 2.0)