The Parthian Empire

The Roman Empire > Ancient Civilizations > Parthian Empire


Long period of Peace between Parthia and Rome

Results of the Establishment of Tiridates in Armenia. Long period of Peace between Parthia and Rome. Obscurity of Parthian History at this time. Relations of Volagases I. with Vespasian. Invasion of Western Asia by Alani. Death of Volagases I. and Character of his Reign. Accession and Long Reign of Pacorus. Relations of Pacorus with Decebalus of Dacia. Internal Condition of Parthia during his Reign. Death of Pacorus and Accession of Chosroes.

The establishment of Tiridates as king of Armenia, with the joint consent of Volagases and Nero, inaugurated a period of peace between the two Empires of Rome and Parthia, which exceeded half a century. This result was no doubt a fortunate one for the inhabitants of Western Asia; but it places the modern historian of the Parthians at a disadvantage. Hitherto the classical writers, in relating the wars of the Syro-Macedonians and the Romans, have furnished materials for Parthian history, which, if not as complete as we might wish, have been at any rate fairly copious and satisfactory. Now, for the space of half a century, we are left without anything like a consecutive narrative, and are thrown upon scattered and isolated notices, which can form only a most incomplete and disjointed narrative. The reign of Volagases I. appears to have continued for about twelve years after the visit of Tiridates to Rome; and no more than three or four events are known as having fallen into this interval. Our knowledge of the reign of Pacorus is yet more scanty. But as the business of the workman is simply to make the best use that he can of his materials, such a sketch of this dark period as the notices which have come down to us allow will now be attempted.

When the troubles which followed upon the death of Nero shook the Roman world, and after the violent ends of Galba and Otho, the governor of Judaea, Vespasian, resolved to become a candidate for the imperial power (A.D. 69), Volagases was at once informed by envoys of the event, and was exhorted to maintain towards the new monarch the same peaceful attitude which he had now for seven years observed towards his predecessors. Volagases not only complied with the request, out sent ambassadors in return to Vespasian, while he was still at Alexandria (A.D. 70), and offered to put at his disposal a body of forty thousand Parthian cavalry. The circumstances of his position allowed Vespasian to decline this magnificent proposal, and to escape the odium which would have attached to the employment of foreign troops against his countrymen. His generals in Italy had by this time carried all before them; and he was able, after thanking the Parthian monarch, to inform him that peace was restored to the Roman world, and that he had therefore no need of auxiliaries. In the same friendly spirit in which he had made this offer, Volagases, in the next year (A.D. 71), sent envoys to Titus at Zeugma, who presented to him the Parthian king's congratulations on his victorious conclusion of the Jewish war, and begged his acceptance of a crown of gold. The polite attention was courteously received; and before allowing them to return to their master the young prince hospitably entertained the Parthian messengers at a banquet.

Soon after this, circumstances occurred in the border state of Commagene which threatened a rupture of the friendly relations that had hitherto subsisted between Volagases and Vespasian. Caesennius Paetus, proconsul of Syria, the unsuccessful general in the late Armenian war, informed Vespasian, early in A.D. 72, that he had discovered a plot, by which Commagene, one of the Roman subject kingdoms, was to be detached from the Roman alliance, and made over to the Parthians. Antiochus, the aged monarch, and his son Epiphanes were, according to Paetus, both concerned in the treason; and the arrangement with the Parthians was, he said, actually concluded. It would be well to nip the evil in the bud. If the transfer of territory once took place, a most serious disturbance of the Roman power would follow. Commagene lay west of the Euphrates; and its capital city, Samosata (the modern Sumeisat), commanded one of the points where the great river was most easily crossed; so that, if the Parthians held it, they would have a ready access at all times to the Roman provinces of Cappadocia, Cilicia, and Syria, with a perfectly safe retreat. These arguments had weight with Vespasian, who seems to have had entire confidence in Paetus, and induced him to give the proconsul full liberty to act as he thought best. Thus empowered, Paetus at once invaded Commagene in force, and meeting at first with no resistance (for the Commagenians were either innocent or unprepared), succeeded in occupying Samosata by a coup de main. The aged king wished to yield everything without a blow; but his two sons, Epiphanes and Callinicus, were not to be restrained. They took arms, and, at the head of such a force as they could hastily muster, met Paetus in the field, and fought a battle with him which lasted the whole day, and ended without advantage to either side. But the decision of Antiochus was not to be shaken; he refused to countenance his sons' resistance, and, quitting Commagene, passed with his wife and daughters into the Roman province of Cilicia, where he took up his abode at Tarsus. The spirit of the Commagenians could not hold out against this defection; the force collected began to disperse; and the young princes found themselves forced to fly, and to seek a refuge in Parthia, which they reached with only ten horsemen. Volagases received them with the courtesy and hospitality due to their royal rank; but as he had given them no help in the struggle, so now he made no effort to reinstate them. All the exertion to which he could be brought was to write a letter on their behalf to Vespasian, in which he probably declared them guiltless of the charges that had been brought against them by Paetus. Vespasian, at any rate, seems to have become convinced of their innocence; for though he allowed Commagene to remain a Roman province, he permitted the two princes with their father to reside at Rome, assigned the ex-monarch an ample revenue, and gave the family an honorable status.

It was probably not more than two or three years after the events above narrated, that Volagases found himself in circumstances which impelled him to send a petition to the Roman Emperor for help. The Alani, a Scythian people, who had once dwelt near the Tanais and the Lake Mseotis, or Sea of Azof, but who must now have lived further to the East, had determined on a great predatory invasion of the countries west of the Caspian Gates, and having made alliance with the Hyrcanians, who were in possession of that important pass, had poured into Media through it, driven King Pacorus to the mountains, and overrun the whole of the open country. From hence they had passed on into Armenia, defeated Tiridates, in a battle, and almost succeeded in capturing him by means of a lasso. Volagases, whose subject-kings were thus rudely treated, and who might naturally expect his own proper territories to be next attacked, sent in this emergency a request to Vespasian for aid. He asked moreover that the forces put at his disposal should be placed under the command of either Titus or Domitian, probably not so much from any value that he set on their military talents as from a conviction that if a member of the Imperial family was sent, the force which accompanied him would be considerable. We are told that the question, whether help be given or no, was seriously discussed at Rome, and that Domitian was exceedingly anxious that the troops should go, and begged that he might be their commander. But Vespasian was disinclined for any expenditure of which he did not recognize the necessity, and disliked all perilous adventure. His own refusal of extraneous support, when offered by his rival, rendered it impossible for him to reject Volagases's request without incurring the charge of ingratitude. The Parthians were therefore left to their own resources; and the result seems to have been that the invaders, after ravaging and harrying Media and Armenia at their pleasure, carried off a vast number of prisoners and an enormous booty into their own country. Soon after this, Volagases must have died. The coins of his successor commence in June, A.D. 78, and thus he cannot have outlived by more than three years the irruption of the Alani. If he died, as is most probable, in the spring of A.D. 78, his reign would have covered the space of twenty-seven years. It was an eventful one for Parthia. It brought the second period of struggle with the Romans to an end by compromise which gave to Rome the shadow and to Parthia the substance of victory. And it saw the first completed disintegration of the Empire in the successful revolt of Hyrcania—an event of evil portent. Volagases was undoubtedly a monarch of considerable ability. He conducted with combined prudence and firmness the several campaigns against Corbulo; he proved himself far superior to Paetus; exposed to attacks in various quarters from many different enemies, he repulsed all foreign invaders and, as against them, maintained intact the ancient dominions of the Arsacidae. He practically added Arminia to the Empire. Everywhere success attended him, except against a domestic foe. Hyrcania seceded during his reign, and it may be doubted whether Parthia ever afterwards recovered it. An example was thus set of successful Arian revolt against the hitherto irresistible Turanians, which may have tended in no slight degree to produce the insurrection which eventually subverted the Parthian Empire.

The successor of Volagases I. was Pacorus, whom most writers on Parthian history have regarded as his son. There is, however, no evidence of this relationship; and the chief reason for regarding Pacorus as belonging even to the same branch of the Arsacidse with Volagases I. is his youth at his accession, indicated by the beardless head upon his early coins, which is no doubt in favor of his having been a near relation of the preceding king. PLATE III., Fig 1. The Parthian coins show that his reign continued at least till A.D. 93; it may have lasted considerably longer, for the earliest date on any coin of Chosroes is AEr. Seleuc. 421, or A.D. 110. The accession of Chosroes has been conjecturally assigned to A.D. 108, which would allow to Pacorus the long reign of thirty years. Of this interval it can only be said that, so far as our knowledge goes, it was almost wholly uneventful. We know absolutely nothing of this Pacorus except that he gave encouragement to a person who pretended to be Nero; that he enlarged and beautified Otesiphon; that he held friendly communications with Decebalus, the great Dacian chief, who was successively the adversary of Domitian and Trajan; and that he sold the sovereignty of Osrhoene at a high price to the Edessene prince who was cotemporary with him. The Pseudo-Nero in question appears to have taken refuge with the Parthians in the year A.D. 89, and to have been demanded as an impostor by Domitian. Pacorus was at first inclined to protect and to even assist him, but after a while was induced to give him up, probably by a threat of hostilities. The communication with the Dacian chief was most likely earlier. The Dacians, in one of those incursions into Maesia which they made during the first years of Domitian, took captive a certain Callidromus, a Greek, if we may judge by his name, slave to a Roman of some rank, named Liberius Maximus. This prisoner Decebalus (we are told) sent as a present to Pacorus, in whose service and favor he remained for a number of years. This circumstance, insignificant enough in itself, acquires an interest from the indication which it gives of intercommunication between the enemies of Rome, even when they were separated by vast spaces, and might have been thought to have been wholly ignorant of each other's existence. Decebalus can scarcely have been drawn to Pacorus by any other attraction than that which always subsists between enemies of any great dominant power. He must have looked to the Parthian monarch as a friend who might make a diversion on his behalf upon occasion; and that monarch, by accepting his gift, must be considered to have shown a willingness to accept this kind of relation.

The sale of the Osrhoene territory to Abgarus by Pacorus was not a fact of much consequence. It may indicate an exhaustion of his treasury, resulting from the expenditure of vast sums on the enlargement and adornment of the capital, but otherwise it has no bearing on the general condition of the Empire. Perhaps the Parthian feudatories generally paid a price for their investiture. If they did not, and the case of Abgarus was peculiar, still it does not appear that his purchase at all altered his position as a Parthian subject. It was not until they transferred their allegiance to Rome that the Osrhoene princes struck coins, or otherwise assumed the status of kings. Up to the time of M. Aurelius they continued just as much subject to Parthia as before, and were far from acquiring a position of independence.

There is reason to believe that the reign of Pacorus was a good deal disturbed by internal contentions. We hear of an Artabanus as king of Parthia in A.D. 79; and the Parthian coins of about this period present us with two very marked types of head, both of them quite unlike that of Pacorus, which must be those of monarchs who either contended with Pacorus for the crown, or ruled contemporaneously with him over other portions of the Parthian Empire. [PLATE III., Fig. 2.] Again, towards the close of Pacorus's reign, and early in that of his recognized successor, Chosroes, a monarch called Mithridates is shown by the coins to have borne sway for at least six years—from A.D. 107 to 113. This monarch commenced the practice of placing a Semitic legend upon his coins, which would seem to imply that he ruled in the western rather than the eastern provinces. The probability appears, on the whole, to be that the disintegration which has been already noticed as having commenced under Volagases I. was upon the increase. Three or four monarchs were ruling together in different portions of the Parthian world, each claiming to be the true Arsaces, and using the full titles of Parthian sovereignty upon his coins. The Romans knew but little of these divisions and contentions, their dealings being only with the Arsacid who reigned at Ctesiphon and bore sway over Mesopotamia and Adiabene.

Pacorus must have died about A.D. 108, or a little later. He left behind him two sons, Exedares and Parthamasiris, but neither of these two princes was allowed to succeed him. The Parthian Megistanes assigned the crown to Chosroes, the brother of their late monarch, perhaps regarding Exedares and Parthamasiris as too young to administer the government of Parthia satisfactorily. If they knew, as perhaps they did, that the long period of peace with Rome was coming to an end, and that they might expect shortly to be once more attacked by their old enemy, they might well desire to have upon the throne a prince of ripe years and approved judgment. A raw youth would certainly have been unfit to cope with the age, the experience, and the military genius of Trajan.














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