Parthian Kings

Doubts as to the successor of Artabanus III. First short reign of Gotarzes. He is expelled and Vardanes made king. Reign of Vardanes. His ivar with Izates. His Death. Second reign of Gotarzes. His Contest with his Nephew, Meherdates. His Death. Short and inglorious reign of Vonones II.

There is considerable doubt as to the immediate successor of Artabanus. According to Josephus he left his kingdom to his son, Bardanes or Vardanes, and this prince entered without difficulty and at once upon the enjoyment of his sovereignty. According to Tacitus, the person who obtained the throne directly upon the death of Artabanus was his son, Gotarzes, who was generally accepted for king, and might have reigned without having his title disputed, had he not given indications of a harsh and cruel temper. Among other atrocities whereof he was guilty was the murder of his brother, Artabanus, whom he put to death, together with his wife and son, apparently upon mere suspicion. This bloody initiation of his reign spread alarm among the nobles, who thereupon determined to exert their constitutional privilege of deposing an obnoxious monarch and supplying his place with a new one. Their choice fell upon Vardanes, brother of Gotarzes, who was residing in a distant province, 350 miles from the Court. [PLATE II. Fig. 3.] Having entered into communications with this prince, they easily induced him to quit his retirement, and to take up arms against the tyrant. Vardanes was ambitious, bold and prompt: he had no sooner received the invitation of the Megistanes than he set out, and, having accomplished his journey to the Court in the space of two days, found Gotarzes wholly unprepared to offer resistance. Thus Vardanes became king without fighting a battle. Gotarzes fled, and escaped into the country of the Dahse, which lay east of the Caspian Sea, and north of the Parthian province of Hyrcania. Here he was allowed to reign for some time unmolested by his brother, and to form plans and make preparations for the recovery of his lost power.

The statements of Tacitus are so circumstantial, and his authority as an historian is so great, that we can scarcely hesitate to accept the history as he delivers it, rather than as it is related by the Jewish writer. It is, however, remarkable that the series of Parthian coins presents an appearance of accordance rather with the latter than the former, since it affords no trace of the supposed first reign of Gotarzes in A.D. 42, while it shows Vardanes to have held the throne from Sept. A.D. 43 to at least A.D. 46. Still this does not absolutely contradict Tacitus. It only proves that the first reign of Gotarzes was comprised within a few weeks, and that before two months had passed from the death of Artabanus, the kingdom was established in the hands of Vardanes. That prince, after the flight of his brother, applied himself for some time to the reduction of the Seleucians, whose continued independence in the midst of a Parthian province he regarded as a disgrace to the Empire. His efforts to take the town failed, however, of success. Being abundantly provisioned and strongly fortified, it was well able to stand a siege; and the high spirit of its inhabitants made them determined to resist to the uttermost. While they still held out, Vardanes was called away to the East, where his brother had been gathering strength, and was once more advancing his pretensions. The Hyrcanians, as well as the Dahse, had embraced his cause, and Parthia was threatened with dismemberment. Vardanes, having collected his troops, occupied a position in the plain region of Bactria, and there prepared to give battle to his brother, who was likewise at the head of a considerable army. Before, however, an engagement took place, Gotarzes discovered that there was a design among the nobles on either side to rid themselves of both the brothers, and to set up a wholly new king. Apprehensive of the consequences, he communicated his discovery to Vardanes; and the result was that the two brothers made up their differences and agreed upon terms of peace. Gotarzes yielded his claim to the crown, and was assigned a residence in Hyrcania, which was, probably, made over to his government. Vardanes then returned to the west, and, resuming the siege of Seleucia, compelled the rebel city to a surrender in the seventh year after it had revolted (A.D. 46.)

Successful thus far, and regarding his quarrel with his brother as finally arranged, Vardanes proceeded to contemplate a military expedition of the highest importance. The time, he thought, was favorable for reviving the Parthian claim to Armenia, and disputing once more with Rome the possession of a paramount influence over that country. The Roman government of the dependency, since Artabanus formally relinquished it to them, had been far from proving satisfactory. Mithridates, their protege, had displeased them, and had been summoned to Rome by Caligula, who kept him there a prisoner until his death. Armenia, left without a king, had asserted her independence; and when, after an absence of several years, Mithridates was authorized by Claudius to return to his kingdom, the natives resisted him in arms, and were only brought under his rule by the combined help of the Romans and the Iberians. Forced upon a reluctant people by foreign arms, Mithridates felt himself insecure, and this feeling made him rule his subjects with imprudent severity. Under these circumstances it seemed to Vardanes that it would not be very difficult to recover Armenia, and thus gain a signal triumph over the Romans.

But to engage in so great a matter with a good prospect of success it was necessary that the war should be approved, not only by himself, but by his principal feudatories. The most important of these was now Izates, king of Adiabene and Gordyene who in the last reign had restored Artabanus to his lost throne. Vardanes, before committing himself by any overt act, appears to have taken this prince into his counsels, and to have requested his opinion on affronting the Romans by an interference with Armenian affairs. Izates strenuously opposed the project. He had a personal interest in the matter, since he had sent five of his boys to Rome, to receive there a polite education, and he had also a profound respect for the Roman power and military system. He endeavored, both by persuasion and reasoning, to induce Vardanes to abandon his design. His arguments may have been cogent, but they were not thought by Vardanes to have much force, and the result of the conference was that the Great King declared war against his feudatory.

The war had, apparently, but just begun, when fresh troubles broke out in the north-east. Gotarzes had never ceased to regret his renunciation of his claims, and was now, on the invitation of the Parthian nobility, prepared to came forward again and contest the kingdom with his brother. Vardanes had to relinquish his attempt to coerce Izates, and to hasten to Hyrcania in order to engage the troops which Gotarzes had collected in that distant region. These he met and defeated more than once in the country between the Caspian and Herat; but the success of his military operations failed to strengthen his hold upon the affections of his subjects. Like the generality of the Parthian princes, he showed himself harsh and cruel in the hour of victory, and in conquering an opposition roused an opposition that was fiercer and more formidable. A conspiracy was formed against him shortly after his return from Hyrcania, and he was assassinated while indulging in the national amusement of the chase.

The murder of Vardanes was immediately followed by the restoration of Gotarzes to the throne. There may have been some who doubted his fitness for the regal office, and inclined to keep the throne vacant till they could send to Rome and obtain from thence one of the younger and more civilized Parthian princes. But we may be sure that the general desire was not for a Romanized sovereign, but for a truly national king, one born and bred in the country. Gotarzes was proclaimed by common consent, and without any interval, after the death of Vardanes, and ascended the Parthian throne before the end of the year A.D. 46. It is not likely that his rule would have been resisted had he conducted himself well; but the cruelty of his temper, which had already once cost him his crown, again displayed itself after his restoration, and to this defect was added a slothful indulgence yet more distasteful to his subjects. Some military expeditions which he undertook, moreover, failed of success, and the crime of defeat caused the cup of his offences to brim over. The discontented portion of his people, who were a strong party, sent envoys to the Roman Emperor, Claudius (A.D. 49), and begged that he would surrender to them Meherdates, the grandson of Phraates IV. and son of Vonones, who still remained at Rome in a position between that of a guest and a hostage. "They were not ignorant," they said, "of the treaty which bound the Romans to Parthia, nor did they ask Claudius to infringe it." Their desire was not to throw off the authority of the Arsacidse, but only to exchange one Arsacid for another. The rule of Gotarzes had became intolerable, alike to the nobility and the common people. He had murdered all his male relatives, or at least all that were within his reach—first his brothers, then his near kinsmen, finally even those whose relationship was remote; nor had he stopped there; he had proceeded to put to death their young children and their pregnant wives. He was sluggish in his habits, unfortunate in his wars, and had betaken himself to cruelty, that men might not despise him for his want of manliness. The friendship between Rome and Parthia was a public matter; it bound the Romans to help the nation allied to them—a nation which, though equal to them in strength, was content on account of its respect for Rome to yield her precedence. Parthian princes were allowed to be hostages in foreign lands for the very reason that then it was always possible, if their own monarch displeased them, for the people to obtain a king from abroad, brought up under milder influences.

This harangue was made before the Emperor Claudius and the assembled Senate, Meherdates himself being also present. Claudius responded to it favorably. He would follow the example of the Divine Augustus, and allow the Parthians to take from Rome the monarch whom they requested. That prince, bred up in the city, had always been remarkable for his moderation. He would (it was to be hoped) regard himself in his new position, not as a master of slaves, but as a ruler of citizens. He would find that clemency and justice were the more appreciated by a barbarous nation, the less they had had experience of them Meherdates might accompany the Parthian envoys; and a Roman of rank, Caius Cassius, the prefect of Syria, should be instructed to receive them on their arrival in Asia, and to see them safely across the Euphrates.

The young prince accordingly set out, and reached the city of Zeugma in safety. Here he was joined, not only by a number of the Parthian nobles, but also by the reigning king of Osrhoene, who bore the usual name of Abgarus. The Parthians were anxious that he should advance at his best speed and by the shortest route on Ctesiphon, and the Roman governor, Cassius, strongly advised the same course; but Meherdates fell under the influence of the Osrhoene monarch, who is thought by Tacitus to have been a false friend, and to have determined from the first to do his best for Gotarzes. Abgarus induced Meherdates to proceed from Zeugma to his own capital, Edessa, and there detained him for several days by means of a series of festivities. He then persuaded him, though the winter was approaching, to enter Armenia, and to proceed against his antagonist by the circuitous route of the Upper Tigris, instead of the more direct one through Mesopotamia. In this way much valuable time was lost. The rough mountain-routes and snows of Armenia harassed and fatigued the pretender's troops, while Gotarzes was given an interval during which to collect a tolerably large body of soldiers. Still, the delay was not very great. Meherdatos marched probably by Diarbekr, Til, and Jezireh, or in other words, followed the course of the Tigris, which he crossed in the neighborhood of Mosul, after taking the small town which represented the ancient Nineveh. His line of march had now brought him into Adiabene; and it seemed a good omen for the success of his cause that Izates, the powerful monarch of that tract, declared in his favor, and brought a body of troops to his assistance. Gotarzes was in the neighborhood, but was distrustful of his strength, and desirous of collecting a larger force before committing himself to the hazard of an engagement. He had taken up a strong position with the river Corma in his front, and, remaining on the defensive, contented himself with trying by his emissaries the fidelity of his rival's troops and allies. The plan succeeded. After a little time, the army of Meherdates began to melt away. Izates of Adiabene and Abgarus of Edessa drew off their contingents, and left the pretender to depend wholly on his Parthian supporters. Even their fidelity was doubtful, and might have given way on further trial; Meherdates therefore resolved, before being wholly deserted, to try the chance of a battle.

His adversary was now as willing to engage as himself, since he felt that he was no longer outnumbered. The rivals met, and a fierce and bloody action was fought between the two armies, no important advantage being for a long time gained by either. At length Oarrhenes, the chief general on the side of Meherdates, having routed the troops opposed to him and pursued them too hotly, was intercepted by the enemy on his return and either killed or made prisoner. This event proved decisive. The loss of their leader caused the army of Meherdates to fly; and he himself, being induced to intrust his safety to a certain Parrhaces, a dependent of his father's, was betrayed by this miscreant, loaded with chains, and given up to his rival. Gotarzes now proved less unmerciful than might have been expected from his general character. Instead of punishing Meherdates with death, he thought it sufficient to insult him with the names of "foreigner" and "Roman," and to render it impossible that he should be again put forward as monarch by subjecting him to mutilation. The Roman historian supposes that this was done to cast a slur upon Rome but it was a natural measure of precaution under the circumstances, and had probably no more recondite motive than compassion for the youth and inexperience of the pretender.

Gotarzes, having triumphed over his rival, appears to have resolved on commemorating his victory in a novel manner. Instead of striking a new coin, like Vonones, he determined to place his achievement on record by making it the subject of a rock-tablet, which he caused to be engraved on the sacred mountain of Baghistan, adorned already with sculptures and inscriptions by the greatest of the Achaemenian monarchs. The bas-relief and its inscription have been much damaged, both by the waste of ages and the rude hand of man; but enough remains to show that the conqueror was represented as pursuing his enemies in the field, on horseback, while a winged Victory, flying in the air, was on the point of placing a diadem on his head. In the Greek legend which accompanied the sculpture he was termed "Satrap of Satraps"—an equivalent of the ordinary title "King of Kings"; and his conquered rival was mentioned under the name of Mithrates, a corrupt form of the more common or Mithridates or Meherdates.

Very shortly after his victory Gotarzes died. His last year seems to have been A.D. 51. According to Tacitus, he died a natural death, from the effects of disease; but, according to Josephus, he was the victim of a conspiracy. The authority of Tacitus, here as elsewhere generally, is to be preferred; and we may regard Gotarzes as ending peacefully his unquiet reign, which had begun in A.D. 42, immediately after the death of his father, had been interrupted for four years—from A.D. 42 to A.D. 46—and had then been renewed and lasted from A.D. 46 to A.D. 51. Gotarzes was not a prince of any remarkable talents, or of a character differing in any important respects from the ordinary Parthian type. He was perhaps even more cruel than the bulk of the Arsacidae, though his treatment of Meherdates showed that he could be lenient upon occasion. He was more prudent than daring, more politic than brave, more bent on maintaining his own position than on advancing the power or dignity of his country. Parthia owed little or nothing to him. The internal organization of the country must have suffered from his long wars with his brother and his nephew; its external reputation was not increased by one whose foreign expeditions were uniformly unfortunate.

The successor of Gotarzes was a certain Vonones. His relationship to previous monarchs is doubtful—and may be suspected to have been remote. Gotarzes had murdered or mutilated all the Arsacidse on whom he could lay his hands; and the Parthians had to send to Media upon his disease in order to obtain a sovereign of the required blood. The coins of Vonones II. are scarce, and have a peculiar rudeness. The only date found upon them is one equivalent to A.D. 51; and it would seem that his entire reign was comprised within the space of a few months. Tacitus tells us that his rule was brief and inglorious, marked by no important events, either prosperous or adverse. He was succeeded by his son, Volagases I., who appears to have ascended the throne before the year A.D. 51 had expired.