The Parthian Empire

The Roman Empire > Ancient Civilizations > Parthian Empire


Dark period of Parthian History

Dark period of Parthian History. Doubtful succession of the Monarchs. Accession of Sanatrceces, ab. B.C. 76. Position of Parthia during the Mithridatic Wars. Accession of Phraates III. His relations with Pompey. His death. Civil War between his two sons, Mithridates and Orodes. Death of Mithridates.

The successor of Mithridates II. is unknown. It has been argued, indeed, that the reigns of the known monarchs of this period would not be unduly long if we regarded them as strictly consecutive, and placed no blank between the death of Mithridates II. and the accession of the next Arsaces whose name has come down to us. Sanatrodoeces, it has been said, may have been, and may, therefore, well be regarded as, the successor of Mithridates. But the words of the epitomizer of Trogus, placed at the head of this chapter, forbid the acceptance of this theory. The epitomizer would not have spoken of "many kings" as intervening between Mithridates II. and Orodes, if the number had been only three. The expression implies, at least, four or five monarchs; and thus we have no choice but to suppose that the succession of the kings is here imperfect, and that at least one or two reigns were interposed between those of the second Mithridates and of the monarch known as Sanatroeces, Sinatroces, or Sintricus.

A casual notice of a Parthian monarch in a late writer may supply the gap, either wholly or in part. Lucian speaks of a certain Mnasciras as a Parthian king, who died at the advanced age of ninety-six. As there is no other place in the Parthian history at which the succession is doubtful, and as no such name as Mnascris occurs elsewhere in the list, it seems necessary, unless we reject Lucian's authority altogether, to insert this monarch here. We cannot say, however, how long he reigned, or ascribe to him any particular actions; nor can we say definitely what king he either succeeded or preceded. It is possible that his reign covered the entire interval between Mithridates II. and Sanatroeces; it is possible, on the other hand, that he had successors and predecessors, whose names have altogether perished.

The expression used by the epitomizer of Trogus, and a few words dropped by Plutarch, render it probable that about this time there were contentions between various members of the Arsacid family which issued in actual civil war. Such contentions are a marked feature of the later history; and, according to Plutarch, they commenced at this period. We may suspect, from the great age of two of the monarchs chosen, that the Arsacid stock was now very limited in number, that it offered no candidates for the throne whose claims were indisputable, and that consequently at each vacancy there was a division of opinion among the "Megistanes," which led to the claimants making appeal, if the election went against them, to the arbitrament of arms.

The dark time of Parthian history is terminated by the accession—probably in B.C. 76—of the king above mentioned as known by the three names of Sanatroeces, Sinatroces, and Sintricus. The form, Sanatroeces, which appears upon the Paithian coins, is on that account to be preferred. The king so called had reached when elected the advanced age of eighty. It may be suspected that he was a son of the sixth Arsaces (Mithridates I.), and consequently a brother of Phraates II. He had, perhaps, been made prisoner by that Scythians in the course of the disastrous war waged by that monarch, and had been retained in captivity for above fifty years. At any rate, he appears to have been indebted to the Scythians in some measure for the crown which he acquired so tardily, his enjoyment of it having been secured by the help of a contingent of troops furnished to him by the Scythian tribe of the Sacauracae.

The position of the Empire at the time of his accession was one of considerable difficulty. Parthia, during the period of her civil contentions, had lost much ground in the west, having been deprived by Tigranes of at least two important provinces. At the same time she had been witness of the tremendous struggle between Rome and Pontus which commenced in B.C. 88, was still continuing, and still far from decided, when Sanatroeces came to the throne. An octogenarian monarch was unfit to engage in strife, and if Sanatroeces, notwithstanding this drawback, had been ambitious of military distinction, it would have been difficult for him to determine into which scale the interests of his country required that he should cast the weight of his sword. On the one hand, Parthia had evidently much to fear from the military force and the covetous disposition of Tigranes, king of Armenia, the son-in-law of Mithridates, and at this time his chosen alley. Tigranes had hitherto been continually increasing in strength. By the defeat of Artanes, king of Sophene, or Armenia Minor, he had made himself master of Armenia in its widest extent; by his wars with Parthia herself he had acquired Gordyene, or Northern Mesopotamia, and Adiabene, or the entire rich tract east of the middle Tigris (including Assyria Proper and Arbelitis), as far, at any rate, as the course of the lower Zab; by means which are not stated he had brought under subjection the king of the important country of Media Artropatene, independent since the time of Alexander. Invited into Syria, about B.C. 83, by the wretched inhabitants, wearied with the perpetual civil wars between the princes of the house of the Seleucidae, he had found no difficulty in establishing himself as king over Cilicia, Syria, and most of Phoenicia. About B.C. 80 he had determined on building himself a new capital in the province of Gordyene, a capital of a vast size, provided with all the luxuries required by an Oriental court, and fortified with walls which recalled the glories of the ancient cities of the Assyrians. The position of this huge town on the very borders of the Parthian kingdom, in a province which had till very recently been Parthian, could be no otherwise understood that as a standing menace to Parthia itself, the proclamation of an intention to extend the Armenian dominion southwards, and to absorb at any rate all the rich and fertile country between Gordyene and the sea. Thus threatened by Armenia, it was impossible for Sanatroeces cordially to embrace the side of Mithridates, with which Armenia and its king were so closely allied; it was impossible for him even to wish that the two allies should be free to work their will on the Asiatic continent unchecked by the power which alone had for the last twelve years obstructed their ambitious projects.

On the other hand, there was already among the Asiatic princes generally a deep distrust of Rome—a fear that in the new people, which had crept so quietly into Asia, was to be found a power more permanently formidable than the Macedonians, a power which would make up for want of brilliancy and dash by a dogged perseverance in its aims, and a stealthy, crafty policy, sure in the end to achieve great and striking results. The acceptance of the kingdom of Attalus had not, perhaps, alarmed any one; but the seizure of Phrygia during the minority of Mithridates, without so much as a pretext, and the practice, soon afterwards established, of setting up puppet kings, bound to do the bidding of their Roman allies, had raised suspicions; the ease with which Mithridates notwithstanding his great power and long preparation, had been vanquished in the first war (B.C. 88-84) had aroused fears; and Sanatroeces could not but misdoubt the advisability of lending aid to the Romans, and so helping them to obtain a still firmer hold on Western Asia. Accordingly we find that when the final war broke out, in B.C. 74, his inclination was, in the first instance, to stand wholly aloof, and when that became impossible, then to temporize. To the application for assistance made by Mithridates in B.C. 72 a direct negative was returned; and it was not until, in B.C. 69, the war had approached his own frontier, and both parties made the most earnest appeals to him for aid, that he departed from the line of pure abstention, and had recourse to the expedient of amusing, both sides with promises, while he helped neither. According to Plutarch, this line of procedure offended Lucullus, and had nearly induced him to defer the final struggle with Mithridates and Tigranes, and turn his arms against Parthia. But the prolonged resistance of Nisibis, and the successes of Mithridates in Pontus, diverted the danger; and the war rolling northwards, Parthia was not yet driven to take a side, but was enabled to maintain her neutral position for some years longer.

Meanwhile the aged Sanatroeces died, and was succeeded by his son, Phraates III. This prince followed at first his father's example, and abstained from mixing himself up in the Mithridatic war; but in B.C. 66, being courted by both sides, and promised the restoration of the provinces lost to Tigranes, he made alliance with Pompey, and undertook, while the latter pressed the war against Mithridates, to find occupation for the Armenian monarch in his own land. This engagement he executed with fidelity. It had happened that the eldest living son of Tigranes, a prince bearing the same name as his father, having raised a rebellion in Armenia and been defeated, had taken refuge in Parthia with Phraates. Phraates determined to take advantage of this circumstance. The young Tigranes was supported by a party among his countrymen who wished to see a youthful monarch upon the throne; and Phraates therefore considered that he would best discharge his obligations to the Romans by fomenting this family quarrel, and lending a moderate support to the younger Tigranes against his father. He marched an army into Armenia in the interest of the young prince, overran the open country, and advanced on Artaxata, the capital. Tigranes, the king, fled at his approach, and betook himself to the neighboring mountains. Artaxata was invested; but as the siege promised to be long, the Parthian monarch after a time withdrew, leaving the pretender with as many troops as he thought necessary to press the siege to a successful issue. The result, however, disappointed his expectations. Scarcely was Phraates gone, when the old king fell upon his son, defeated him, and drove him beyond his borders. He was forced, however, soon afterwards, to submit to Pompey, who, while the civil war was raging in Armenia, had defeated Mithridates and driven him to take refuge in the Tauric Chersonese.

Phraates, now, naturally expected the due reward of his services, according to the stipulations of his agreement with Pompey. But that general was either dissatisfied with the mode in which the Parthian had discharged his obligations, or disinclined to strengthen the power which he saw to be the only one in these parts capable of disputing with Rome the headship of Asia. He could scarcely prevent, and he does not seem to have tried to prevent, the recovery of Adiabene by the Parthians; but the nearer province of Gordyene to which they had an equal claim, he would by no means consent to their occupying. At first he destined it for the younger Tigranes. When the prince offended him, he made it over to Ariobarzanes, the Cappadocian monarch. That arrangement not taking effect, and the tract being disputed between Phraates and the elder Tigranes, he sent his legate, Afranius, to drive the Parthians out of the country, and delivered it over into the hands of the Armenians. At the same time he insulted the Parthian monarch by refusing him his generally recognized title of "King of Kings." He thus entirely alienated his late ally, who remonstrated against the injustice with which he was treated, and was only deterred from declaring war by the wholesome fear which he entertained of the Roman arms.

Pompey, on his side, no doubt took the question into consideration whether or no he should declare the Parthian prince a Roman enemy, and proceed to direct against him the available forces of the Empire. He had purposely made him hostile, and compelled him to take steps which might have furnished a plausible casus belli. But, on the whole, he found that he was not prepared to venture on the encounter. The war had not been formally committed to him; and if he did not prosper in it, he dreaded the accusations of his enemies at Rome. He had seen, moreover, with his own eyes; that the Parthians were an enemy far from despicable, and his knowledge of campaigning told him that success against them was not certain. He feared to risk the loss of all the glory which he had obtained by grasping greedily at more, and preferred enjoying the fruits of the good luck which had hitherto attended him to tempting fortune on a new field. He therefore determined that he would not allow himself to be provoked into hostilities by the reproaches, the dictatorial words, or even the daring acts of the Parthian King. When Phraates demanded his lost provinces he replied, that the question of borders was one which lay, not between Parthia and Rome, but between Parthia and Armenia. When he laid it down that the Euphrates properly bounded the Roman territory, and charged Pompey not to cross it, the latter said he would keep to the just bounds, whatever they were. When Tigranes complained that after having been received into the Roman alliance he was still attacked by the Parthian armies, the reply of Pompey was that he was willing to appoint arbitrators who should decide all the disputes between the two nations. The moderation and caution of these answers proved contagious. The monarchs addressed resolved to compose their differences, or at any rate to defer the settlement of them to a more convenient time. They accepted Pompey's proposal of an arbitration; and in a short time an arrangement was effected by which relations of amity were re-established between the two countries.

It would seem that not very long after the conclusion of this peace and the retirement of Pompey from Asia (B.C. 62), Phraates lost his life. He was assassinated by his two sons, Mithridates and Orodes; for what cause we are not told. Mithridates, the elder of the two, succeeded him (about B.C. 60); and, as all fear of the Romans had now passed away in consequence of their apparently peaceful attitude, he returned soon after his accession to the policy of his namesake, Mithridates II., and resumed the struggle with Armenia from which his father had desisted. The object of the war was probably the recovery of the lost province of Gordyene, which, having been delivered to the elder Tigranes by Pompey, had remained in the occupation of the Armenians. Mithridates seems to have succeeded in his enterprise. When we next obtain a distinct view of the boundary line which divides Parthia from her neighbors towards the north and the north-west, which is within five years of the probable date of Mithridates's accession, we find Gordyene once more a Parthian province. As the later years of this intermediate lustre are a time of civil strife, during which territorial gains can scarcely have been made, we are compelled to refer the conquest to about B.C. 39-57. But in this case it must have been due to Mithridates III., whose reign is fixed with much probability to the years B.C. 60-56.

The credit which Mithridates had acquired by his conduct of the Armenian war he lost soon afterwards by the severity of his home administration. There is reason to believe that he drove his brother, Orodes, into banishment. At any rate, he ruled so harshly and cruelly that within a few years of his accession the Parthian nobles deposed him, and, recalling Orodes from his place of exile, set him up as king in his brother's room. Mithridates was, it would seem, at first allowed to govern Media as a subject monarch; but after a while his brother grew jealous of him, and deprived him of this dignity. Unwilling to acquiesce in his disgrace, Mithridates fled to the Romans, and being favorably received by Gabinius, then proconsul of Syria, endeavored to obtain his aid against his countrymen. Gabinius, who was at once weak and ambitious, lent a ready ear to his entreaties, and was upon the point of conducting an expedition into Parthia, when he received a still more tempting invitation from another quarter. Ptolemy Auletes, expelled from Egypt by his rebellious subjects, asked his aid, and having recommendations from Pompey, and a fair sum of ready money to disburse, found little difficulty in persuading the Syrian proconsul to relinquish his Parthian plans and march the force at his disposal into Egypt. Mithridates, upon this, withdrew from Syria, and re-entering the Parthian territory, commenced a civil war against his brother, finding numerous partisans, especially in the region about Babylon. It may be suspected that Seleucia, the second city in the Empire, embraced his cause. Babylon, into which he had thrown himself, sustained a long siege on his behalf, and only yielded when compelled by famine. Mithridates might again have become a fugitive; but he was weary of the disappointments and hardships which are the ordinary lot of a pretender, and preferred to cast himself on the mercy and affection of his brother. Accordingly he surrendered himself unconditionally to Orodes; but this prince, professing to place the claims of patriotism above those of relationship, caused the traitor who had sought aid from Rome to be instantly executed. Thus perished Mithridates III. after a reign which cannot have exceeded five years, in the winter of B.C. 56, or the early spring of B.C. 55. Orodes, on his death, was accepted as king by the whole nation.














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