Emperor Trajan and Parthia

Reign of Chosroes. General condition of Oriental Affairs gives a handle to Trajan. Trajan's Schemes of Conquest. Embassy of Chosroes to Trajan fails. Great Expedition of Trajan. Campaign of A. D. 115. Campaign of A.D. 116. Death of Trajan, and relinquishment of his Parthian Conquests by Hadrian. Interview of Chosroes with Hadrian. Its Consequences. Death of Chosroes and Accession of Volagases II.

The general state of Oriental affairs at the accession of Chosroes seems to have been the following. Upon the demise of Tiridates (about A.D. 100) Pacorus had established upon the Armenian throne one of his sons, named Exedares, or Axidares, and this prince had thenceforth reigned as king of Armenia without making any application to Rome for investiture, or acknowledging in any way the right of the Romans to interfere with the Armenian succession. Trajan, sufficiently occupied in the West, had borne this insult. When, however, in A.D. 114, the subjugation of Dacia was completed, and the Roman Emperor found his hands free, he resolved to turn his arms towards Asia, and to make the Armenian difficulty a pretext for a great military expedition, designed to establish unmistakably the supremacy of Rome throughout the East. The condition of the East at once called for the attention of Rome, and was eminently favorable for the extension of her influence at this period. Disintegrating forces were everywhere at work, tending to produce a confusion and anarchy which invited the interposition of a great power, and rendered resistance to such a power difficult. Christianity, which was daily spreading itself more and more widely, acted as a dissolvent upon the previously-existing forms of society, loosening the old ties, dividing man from man by an irreconcilable division, and not giving much indication as yet of its power to combine and unite. Judaism, embittered by persecution, had from a nationality become a conspiracy; and the disaffected adherents of the Mosaic system, dispersed through all the countries of the East, formed an explosive element in the population which involved the constant danger of a catastrophe. The Parthian political system was also, as already remarked, giving symptoms of breaking up. Those bonds which for two centuries and a half had sufficed to hold together a heterogeneous kingdom extending from the Euphrates to the Indus, and from the Oxus to the Southern Ocean, were beginning to grow weak, and the Parthian Empire appeared to be falling to pieces. There seemed to be at once a call and an opportunity for a fresh arrangement of the East, for the introduction of a unifying power, such as Rome recognized in her own administrative system, which should compel the crumbling atoms of the Oriental world once more into cohesion.

To this call Trajan responded. His vast ambition had been whetted, rather than satiated, by the conquest of a barbarous nation, and a single, not very valuable, province. In the East he might hope to add to the Roman State half a dozen countries of world-wide repute, the seats of ancient empires, the old homes of Asiatic civilization, countries associated with the immortal names of Sennacherib and Sardanapalus, Cyrus, Darius, and Alexander. The career of Alexander had an attraction for him, which he was fain to confess; and he pleased himself by imitating, though he could not hope at his age to equal it. His Eastern expedition was conceived very much in the same spirit as that of Crassus; but he possessed the military ability in which the Triumvir was deficient, and the enemy whom he had to attack was grown less formidable.

Trajan commenced his Eastern expedition in A.D. 114, seven years after the close of the Dacian War. He was met at Athens in the autumn of that year by envoys from Chosroes, who brought him presents, and made representations which, it was hoped, would induce him to consent to peace. Chosroes stated that he had deposed his nephew, Exedares, the Armenian prince whose conduct had been offensive to Rome; and proposed that, as the Armenian throne was thereby vacant, it should be filled by the appointment of Parthamasiris, Exedares's brother. This prince would be willing, he said, to receive investiture at the hands of Rome; and he requested that Trajan would transmit to him the symbol of sovereignty. The accommodation suggested would have re-established the relations of the two countries towards Armenia on the basis on which they had been placed by the agreement between Volagases and Nero. It would have saved the credit of Rome, while it secured to Parthia the substantial advantage of retaining Armenia under her authority and protection. Trajan might well have consented to it, had his sole object been to reclaim the rights or to vindicate the honor of his country. But he had distinctly made up his mind to aim, not at the re-establishment of any former condition of things, but at the placing of matters in the East on an entirely new footing. He therefore gave the ambassadors of Chosroes a cold reception, declined the gifts offered him, and replied to the proposals of accommodation that the friendship of kings was to be measured by deeds rather than by words—he would therefore say nothing, but when he reached Syria would act in a becoming manner. The envoys of the Parthian monarch were obliged to return with this unsatisfactory answer; and Chosroes had to wait and see what interpretation it would receive from the course of events.

During the later months of autumn, Trajan advanced from Athens to Antioch. At that luxurious capital, he mustered his forces and prepared for the campaign of the ensuing year. Abgarus, the Osrhoene prince who had lately purchased his sovereignty from Pacorus, sent an embassy to him in the course of the winter, with presents and an offer of friendship. Parthamasiris also entered into communications with him, first assuming the royal title, and then, when his letter received no answer, dropping it, and addressing the Roman Emperor as a mere private person. Upon this act of self-humiliation, negotiations were commenced. Parthamasiris was encouraged to present himself at the Roman camp, and was given to understand that he would there receive from Trajan, as Tiridates had received from Nero, the emblem of sovereignty and permission to rule Armenia. The military preparations were, however, continued. Vigorous measures were taken to restore the discipline of the Syrian legions, which had suffered through the long tranquillity of the East and the enervating influence of the climate. With the spring Trajan commenced his march. Ascending the Euphrates, to Samosata, and receiving as he advanced the submission of various semi-independent dynasts and princes, he took possession of Satala and Elegeia, Armenian cities on or near the Euphrates, and establishing himself at the last-named place, waited for the arrival of Parthamasiris. That prince shortly rode into the Roman camp, attended by a small retinue; and a meeting was arranged, at which the Parthian, in the sight of the whole Roman army, took the diadem from his brows and laid it at the feet of the Roman Emperor, expecting to have it at once restored to him. But Trajan had determined otherwise. He made no movement; and the army, prepared no doubt for the occasion, shouted with all their might, saluting him anew as Imperator, and congratulating him on his "bloodless victory." Parthamasiris felt that he had fallen into a trap, and would gladly have turned and fled; but he found himself surrounded by the Roman troops and virtually a prisoner. Upon this he demanded a private audience, and was conducted to the Emperor's tent, where he made proposals which were coldly rejected, and he was given to understand that he must regard his crown as forfeited. It was further required of him that, to prevent false rumors, he should present himself a second time at the Emperor's tribunal, prefer his requests openly, and hear the Imperial decision. The Parthian consented. With a boldness worthy of his high descent, he affirmed that he had neither been defeated nor made prisoner, but had come of his own free will to hold a conference with the Roman chief, in the full expectation of receiving from him, as Tiridates had received from Nero, the crown of Armenia, confident, moreover, that in any case he would "suffer no wrong, but be allowed to depart in safety." Trajan answered that he did not intend to give the crown of Armenia to any one—the country belonged to the Romans, and should have a Roman governor. As for Parthamasiris, he was free to go whithersoever he pleased, and his Parthian attendants might accompany him. The Armenians, however, must remain. They were Roman subjects, and owed no allegiance to Parthia.

The tale thus told, with no appearance of shame, by the Roman historian, Dio Cassius, is sufficiently disgraceful to Trajan, but it does not reveal to us the entire baseness of his conduct. We learn from other writers, two of them contemporary with the events, that the pompous dismissal of Parthamasiris, with leave to go wherever he chose, was a mere pretence. Trajan had come to the conclusion, if not before the interview, at any rate in the course of it, that the youth was dangerous, and could not be allowed to live. He therefore sent troops to arrest him as he rode off from the camp, and when he offered resistance caused him to be set upon and slain. This conduct he afterwards strove to justify by accusing the young prince of having violated the agreement made at the interview; but even the debased moral sense of his age was revolted by this act, and declared the grounds whereon he excused it insufficient. Good faith and honor had been sacrificed (it was said) to expediency—the reputation of Rome had been tarnished—it would have been better, even if Parthamasiris were guilty, to have let him escape, than to have punished him at the cost of a public scandal. So strongly was the disgrace felt that some (it seems) endeavored to exonerate Trajan from the responsibility of having contrived the deed, and to throw the blame of it on Exedares, the ex-king of Armenia and brother of Parthamasiris. But Trajan had not sunk so low as to shift his fault on another. He declared openly that the act was his own, and that Exedares had had no part in it.

The death of Parthamasiris was followed by the complete submission of Armenia. Chosroes made no attempt to avenge the murder of his nephew, or to contest with Trajan the possession of the long-disputed territory. A little doubt seems for a short time to have been entertained by the Romans as to its disposal. The right of Exedares to be reinstated in his former kingdom was declared by some to be clear; and it was probably urged that the injuries which he had suffered at the hands of Chosroes would make him a sure Roman ally. But these arguments had no weight with Trajan. He had resolved upon his course. An end should be put, at once and forever, to the perpetual intrigues and troubles inseparable from such relations as had hitherto subsisted between Rome and the Armenian kingdom. The Greater and the Lesser Armenia should be annexed to the Empire, and should form a single Roman province. This settled, attention was turned to the neighboring countries. Alliance was made with Anchialus, king of the Heniochi and Macheloni, and presents were sent to him in return for those which his envoys had brought to Trajan. A new king was given to the Albanians. Friendly relations were established with the chiefs of the Iberi, Sauro-matse, Golchi, and even with the tribes settled on the Cimmerian Bosphorus. The nations of these parts were taught that Rome was the power which the inhabitants even of the remote East and North had most to fear; and a wholesome awe was instilled into them which would, it was hoped, conduce to the general tranquillity of the Empire.

But the objects thus accomplished, considerable as they were, did not seem to the indefatigable Emperor sufficient for one year. Having settled the affairs of the North-east, and left garrisons in the chief Armenian strongholds, Trajan marched southwards to Edessa, the capital of the province of Gsrhoene, and there received the humble submission of Abgarus, who had hitherto wavered between the two contending powers. Manisares, a satrap of these parts, who had a quarrel of his own with Chosroes, also embraced his cause, while other chiefs wavered in their allegiance to Parthia, but feared to trust the invader. Hostilities were commenced by attacks in two directions—southward against the tract known as Anthemusia, between the Euphrates and the Khabour; and eastward against Batnas, Nisibis, and the mountain region known as Gordyene, or the Mons Masius. Success attended both these movements; and, before winter set in, the Romans had made themselves masters of the whole of Upper Mesopotamia, and had even pushed southwards as far as Singara, a town on the skirts of the modern Sinjar mountain-range. Mesopotarnia was at once, like Armenia, "reduced into the form of a Roman province." Medals were issued representing the conqueror with these subject countries at his foot and the obsequious Senate conferred the title of "Parthicus" upon the Imperator, who had thus robbed the Parthians of two provinces.

According to some, the headquarters of Trajan during the ensuing winter were at Nisibis or Edessa, but the nexus of the narrative in Dio seems rather to require, and the other ancient notices to allow, the belief that he returned to Syria and wintered at Antioch, leaving his generals in possession of the conquered regions, with orders to make every preparation for the campaign of the next year. Among other instructions which they received was the command to build a large fleet at Nisibis, where good timber was abundant, and to prepare for its transport to the Tigris, at the point where that stream quits the mountains and enters on the open country. Meanwhile, in the month of December, the magnificent Syrian capital, where Trajan had his headquarters, was visited by a calamity of a most appalling character. An earthquake, of a violence and duration unexampled in ancient times, destroyed the greater part of its edifices, and buried in their ruins vast multitudes of the inhabitants and of the strangers that had flocked into the town in consequence of the Imperial presence. Many Romans of the highest rank perished, and among them M. Virgilianus Pedo, one of the consuls for the year. The Emperor himself was in danger, and only escaped by creeping through a window of the house in which he resided; nor was his person quite unscathed. Some falling fragments struck him; but fortunately the injuries that he received were slight, and had no permanent consequence. The bulk of the surviving inhabitants, finding themselves houseless, or afraid to enter their houses if they still stood, bivouacked during the height of the winter in the open air, in the Circus, and elsewhere about the city. The terror which legitimately followed from the actual perils was heightened by imaginary fears. It was thought that the Mons Casius, which towers above Antioch to the south-west, was about to be shattered by the violence of the shocks, and to precipitate itself upon the ruined town.

Nor were the horrors of the catastrophe confined to Antioch. The earthquake was one of a series which carried destruction and devastation through the greater part of the East. In the Roman province of Asia, four cities were completely destroyed—Eleia, Myrina, Pitane, and Cyme. In Greece two towns were reduced to ruins, namely, Opus in Locris, and Oritus. In Galatia three cities, unnamed, suffered the same fate. It seemed as if Providence had determined that the new glories which Rome was gaining by the triumphs of her arms should be obscured by calamities of a kind that no human power could avert or control, and that despite the efforts of Trajan to make his reign a time of success and splendor, it should go down to posterity as one of gloom, suffering, and disaster.

Trajan, however, did not allow himself to be diverted from the objects that he had set before him by such trifling matters as the sufferings of a certain number of provincial towns. With the approach of spring (A.D. 116) he was up and doing. His officers had obeyed his orders, and a fleet had been built at Nisibis during the winter amply sufficient for the purpose for which it was wanted. The ships were so constructed that they could be easily taken to pieces and put together again. Trajan had them conveyed on wagons to the Tigris at Jezireh, and there proceeded to make preparations for passing the river and attacking Adiabene. By embarking on board some of his ships companies of heavy-armed and archers, who protected his working parties, and at the same time threatening with other ships to cross at many different points, he was able, though with much difficulty, to bridge the stream in the face of a powerful body of the enemy, and to land his troops safely on the opposite bank. This done, his work was more than half accomplished. Chosroes remained aloof from the war, either husbanding his resources, or perhaps occupied by civil feuds, and left the defence of his outlying provinces to their respective governors. Mobarsapes, the Adiabenian monarch, had set his hopes on keeping the invader out of his kingdom by defending the line of the Tigris, and when that was forced he seems to have despaired, and to have made no further effort. His towns and strongholds were taken one after another, without their offering any serious resistance. Nineveh, Arbela, and Gaugamala fell into the enemy's hands. Adenystrse, a place of great strength, was captured by a small knot of Roman prisoners, who, when they found their friends near, rose upon the garrison, killed the commandant, and opened the gates to their countrymen. In a short time the whole tract between the Tigris and the Zagros mountains was overrun; resistance ceased; and the invader was able to proceed to further conquests.

It might have been expected that an advance would have at once been directed on Ctesiphon, the Parthian capital; but Trajan, for some reason which is not made clear to us, determined otherwise. He repassed the Tigris into Mesopotamia, took Hatra (now el-Hadhr), at that time one of the most considerable places in those parts, and then, crossing to the Euphrates, descended its course to Hit and Babylon. No resistance was offered him, and he became master of the mighty Babylon without a blow. Seleucia seems also to have submitted; and it remained only to attack and take the capital in order to have complete possession of the entire region watered by the two great rivers. For this purpose a fleet was again necessary, and, as the ships used on the upper Tigris had, it would seem, been abandoned, Trajan conveyed a flotilla, which had descended the Euphrates, across Mesopotamia on rollers, and launching it upon the Tigris, proceeded to the attack of the great metropolis. Here again the resistance that he encountered was trivial. Like Babylon and Seleucia, Ctesiphon at once opened its gates. The monarch had departed with his family and his chief treasures,6 and had placed a vast space between himself and his antagonist. He was prepared to contend with his Roman foe, not in battle array, but by means of distance, natural obstacles, and guerilla warfare. He had evidently determined neither to risk a battle nor stand a siege. As Trajan advanced, he retreated, seeming to yield all, but no doubt intending, if it should be necessary, to turn to bay at last, and in the meantime diligently fomenting that spirit of discontent and disaffection which was shortly to render the further advance of the Imperial troops impossible.

But, for the moment, all appeared to go well with the invaders. The surrender of Ctesiphon brought with it the submission of the whole region on the lower courses of the great rivers, and gave the conqueror access to the waters of a new sea. Trajan may be excused if he overrated his successes, regarded himself as another Alexander, and deemed that the great monarchy, so long the rival of Rome, was now at last swept away, and that the entire East was on the point of being absorbed into the Roman Empire. The capture by his lieutenants of the golden throne of the Parthian kings may well have seemed to him emblematic of this change; and the flight of Chosroes into the remote and barbarous regions of the far East may have helped to lull his adversary into a feeling of complete security. Such a feeling is implied in the pleasure voyage of the conqueror down the Tigris to the Persian Gulf, in his embarkation on the waters of the Southern Sea, in the inquiries which he instituted with respect to Indian affairs, and in the regret to which he gave utterance, that his advanced years prevented him from making India the term of his labors. No shadow of his coming troubles seems to have flitted before the eyes of the Emperor during the weeks that he was thus occupied—weeks which he passed in self-complacent contemplation of the past and dreams of an impossible future.

Suddenly, tidings of a most alarming kind dispelled his pleasing visions, and roused him to renewed exertions. Revolt, he found, had broken out everywhere in his rear. At Seleucia, at Hatra, at Nisibis, at Edessa, the natives had flown to arms; his entire line of retreat was beset by foes, and he ran a risk of having his return cut off, and of perishing in the land which he had invaded. Trajan had hastily to retrace his stops, and to send his generals in all directions to check the spread of insurrection. Seleucia was recovered by Erucius Clarus and Julius Alexander, who punished its rebellion by delivering it to the flames. Lucius Quietus retook Nisibis, and plundered and burnt Edessa. Maximus, on the contrary, was defeated and slain by the rebels, who completely destroyed the Roman army under his orders. Trajan, perceiving how slight his hold was upon the conquered populations, felt compelled to change his policy, and, as the only mode of pacifying, even temporarily, the growing discontent, instead of making Lower Mesopotamia into a Roman province, as he had made Armenia, Upper Mesopotamia, and Adiabene (or Assyria), he proceeded with much pomp and display to set up a native king. The prince selected was a certain Parthamaspates, a member of the royal family of the Arsacidse, who had previously sided with Rome against the reigning monarch. In a plain near Ctesiphon, where he had had his tribunal erected, Trajan, after a speech wherein he extolled the greatness of his own exploits, presented to the assembled Romans and natives this youth as King of Parthia, and with his own hand placed the diadem upon his brow.

Under cover of the popularity acquired by this act the aged Emperor now commenced his retreat. The line of the Tigris was no doubt open to him, and along this he might have marched in peace to Upper Mesopotamia or Armenia; but either he preferred the direct route to Syria by way of Hatra and Singara, or the insult offered to the Roman name by the independent attitude which the people of the former place still maintained induced him to diverge from the general line of his course, and to enter the desert in order to chastise their presumption. Hatra was a small town, but strongly fortified. The inhabitants at this time belonged to that Arabian immigration which was always more and more encroaching upon Mesopotamia. They were Parthian subjects, but appear to have had their own native kings. On the approach of Trajan, nothing daunted, they closed their gates, and prepared themselves for resistance. Though he battered down a portion of the wall, they repulsed all the attempts of his soldiers to enter through the breach, and when he himself came near to reconnoitre, they drove him off with their arrows. His troops suffered from the heat, from the want of provisions and fodder, from the swarms of flies which disputed with them every morsel of their food and every drop of their drink, and finally from violent hail and thunderstorms. Trajan was forced to withdraw after a time without effecting anything, and to own himself baffled and defeated by the garrison of a petty fortress.

The year, A.D. 116, seems to have closed with this memorable failure. In the following spring, Chosroes, learning the retreat of the Romans, returned to Ctesiphqn, expelled Parthamaspates, who retired into Roman territory, and re-established his authority in Susiana and Southern Mesopotamia. The Romans, however, still held Assyria (Adiabene) and Upper Mesopotamia, as well as Armenia, and had the strength of the Empire been exerted to maintain these possessions, they might have continued in all probability to be Roman provinces, despite any efforts that Parthia could have made to recover them. But in August, A.D. 117, Trajan died; and his successor, Hadrian, was deeply impressed with the opinion that Trajan's conquests had been impolitic, and that it was unsafe for Rome to attempt under the circumstances of the time any extension of the Eastern frontier. The first act of Hadrian was to relinquish the three provinces which Trajan's Parthian war had added to the Empire, and to withdraw the legions within the Euphrates. Assyria and Mesopotamia were at once reoccupied by the Parthians. Armenia appears to have been made over by Hadrian to Parthamaspates, and to have thus returned to its former condition of a semi-independent kingdom, leaning alternately on Rome and Parthia. It has been asserted that Osrhoene was placed likewise upon the same footing; but the numismatic evidence adduced in favor of this view is weak; and upon the whole it appears most probable that, like the other Mesopotamian countries, Osrhoene again fell under the dominion of the Arsacidae. Rome therefore gained nothing by the great exertions which she had made, unless it were a partial recovery of her lost influence in Armenia, and a knowledge of the growing weakness of her Eastern rival—a knowledge which, though it produced no immediate fruit, was of importance, and was borne in mind when, after another half-century of peace, the relations of the two empires became once more unsatisfactory.

The voluntary withdrawal of Hadrian from Assyria and Mesopotamia placed him on amicable terms with Parthia during the whole of his reign. Chosroes and his successor could not but feel themselves under obligations to the monarch who, without being forced to it by a defeat, had restored to Parthia the most valuable of her provinces. On one occasion alone do we hear of any, even threatened, interruption of the friendly relations subsisting between the two powers; and then the misunderstanding, whatever it may have been, was easily rectified and peace maintained. Hadrian, in A.D. 122, had an interview with Chosroes on his eastern frontier, and by personal explanations and assurances averted, we are told, an impending outbreak. Not long afterwards (A.D. 130, probably) he returned to Chosroes the daughter who had been captured by Trajan, and at the same time promised the restoration of the golden throne, on which the Parthians appear to have set a special value.

It must have been soon after he received back his daughter that Chosroes died. His latest coins bear a date equivalent to A.D. 128; and the Roman historians give Volagases II. as king of Parthia in A.D. 133. It has been generally supposed that this prince was Chosroes' son, and succeeded him in the natural course; but the evidence of the Parthian coins is strong against these suppositions. According to them, Volagases had been a pretender to the Parthian throne as early as A.D. 78, and had struck coins both in that year and the following one, about the date of the accession of Pacorus. His attempt had, however, at that time failed, and for forty-one years he kept his pretensions in abeyance; but about A.D. 119 or 120 he appears to have again come forward, and to have disputed the crown with Chosroes, or reigned contemporaneously with him over some portion of the Parthian kingdom, till about A.D. 130, when—probably on the death of Chosroes—he was acknowledged as sole king by the entire nation. Such is the evidence of the coins, which in this case are very peculiar, and bear the name of Volagases from first to last. It seems to follow from them that Chosroes was succeeded, not by a son, but by a rival, an old claimant of the crown, who cannot have been much younger than Chosroes himself.