The Parthian Empire

The Roman Empire > Ancient Civilizations > Parthian Empire


Reign of Volagases II. Invasion of the Alani. Communications between Volagases and Antoninus Pius. Death of Volagases II. and Accession of Volagases III. Aggressive War of Volagases III. on Rome. Campaign of A.D. 162. Verus sent to the East. Sequel of the War. Losses suffered by Parthia. Death of Volagases III.

Volagases II. appears to have occupied the Parthian throne, after the death of Chosroes, for the space of nineteen years. His reign has a general character of tranquillity, which agrees well with the advanced period of life at which, according to the coins, he first became actual king of Parthia. It was disturbed by only one actual outbreak of hostilities, an occasion upon which Volagases stood upon the defensive; and on one other occasion was for a brief period threatened with disturbance. Otherwise it seems to have been wholly peaceful. So far as appears, no pretenders troubled it. The coins show, for the years between A.D. 130 and A.D. 149, the head of but one monarch, a head of a marked type, which is impossible to be mistaken. [PLATE III., Fig. 4.]

The occasion upon which actual hostilities disturbed the repose of Volagases was in A.D. 133, when, by the intrigues of Pharasmanes, king of the Iberians, a great horde of Alani from the tract beyond the Caucasus was induced to pour itself through the passes of that mountain chain upon the territories of both the Parthians and the Romans Pharasmanes had previously shown contempt for the power of Rome by refusing to pay court to Hadrian, when, in A.D. 130, he invited the monarchs of Western Asia generally to a conference. He had also, it would seem, been insulted by Hadrian, who, when Pharasmanes sent him a number of cloaks made of cloth-of-gold, employed them in the adornment of three hundred convicts condemned to furnish sport to the Romans in the amphitheatre. What quarrel he had with the Parthians we are not told; but it is related that at his instigation the savage Alani, introduced within the mountain barrier, poured at one and the same time into Media Atropatene, which was a dependency of Parthia; into Armenia, which was under Parthamaspates; and into the Roman province of Cappadocia. Volagases sent an embassy to Rome complaining of the conduct of Pharasmanes, who appears to have been regarded as ruling under Roman protection; and that prince was summoned to Rome in order to answer for his conduct. But the Alanian inroad had to be dealt with at once. The Roman governor of Cappadocia, who was Arrian, the historian of Alexander, by a mere display of force drove the barbarians from his province. Volagases showed a tamer spirit; he was content to follow an example, often set in the East, and already in one instance imitated by Rome, but never adopted by any nation as a settled policy without fatal consequences, and to buy at a high price the retreat of the invaders.

It was to have been expected that Rome would have punished severely the guilt of Pharasmanes in exposing the Empire and its allies to horrors such as always accompany the inroads of a barbarous people. But though the Iberian monarch was compelled to travel to Rome and make his appearance before the Emperor's tribunal, yet Hadrian, so far from punishing him, was induced to load him with benefits and honors. He permitted him to sacrifice in the Capitol, placed his equestrian statue in the temple of Bellona, and granted him an augmentation of territory. Volagases can scarcely have been pleased at these results of his complaints; he bore them, however, without murmuring, and, when (in A.D. 138) Hadrian died and was succeeded by his adopted son, T. Aurelius, better known as Antoninus Pius, Volagases sent to Rome an embassy of congratulation, and presented the new monarch with a crown of gold.

It was probably at this same time that he ventured to make an unpleasant demand. Hadrian had promised that the golden throne which Trajan had captured, in his expedition, and by which the Parthians set so much store, should be surrendered to them; but this promise he had failed to perform. Volagases appears to have thought that his successor might be more facile, and accordingly instructed his envoys to re-open the subject, to remind Antoninus of the pledged faith of his adopted father, and to make a formal request for the delivery of the valued relic. Antoninus, however, proved as obdurate as Hadrian. He was not to be persuaded by any argument to give back the trophy; and the envoys had to return with the report that their representations upon the point had been in vain, and had wholly failed to move the new Emperor.

The history of Volagases II. ends with this transaction. No events are assignable to the last ten years of his reign, which was probably a season of profound repose, in the East as it was in the West—a period having (as our greatest historian observes of it) "the rare advantage of furnishing very few materials for history," which is, indeed (as he says), "little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind." The influence of Rome extended beyond his borders. As in modern times it has become a proverb that when a particular European nation is satisfied the peace of the world is assured, so in the days whereof we are treating it would seem that Rome had only to desire repose, for the surrounding nations to find themselves tranquil. The inference appears to be that not only were the wars which occurred between Rome and her neighbors for the most part stirred up by herself, but that even the civil commotions which disturbed States upon her borders had very generally their origin in Roman intrigues, which, skilfully concealed from view, nevertheless directed the course of affairs in surrounding States, and roused in them, when Rome thought her interests required it, civil differences, disorders, and contentions.

The successor of Volagasos II. was Volagases III., who was most probably his son, although of this there is no direct evidence. The Parthian coins show that Volagases III. ascended the throne in A.D. 148 or 149, and reigned till A.D. 190 or 191—a space of forty-two years. We may assume that he was a tolerably young man at his accession, though the effigy upon his earliest coins is well bearded, and that he was somewhat tired of the long inactivity which had characterized the period of his father's rule. He seems very early to have meditated a war with Rome, and to have taken certain steps which betrayed his intentions; but, upon their coming to the knowledge of Antoninus, and that prince writing to him on the subject, Volagases altered his plans, and resolved to wait, at any rate, until a change of Emperor at Rome should give him a chance of taking the enemy at a disadvantage. Thus it was not till A.D. 161—twelve years after his accession—that his original design was carried out, and the flames of war were once more lighted in the East to the ruin and desolation of the fairest portion of Western Asia.

The good Antoninus was succeeded in the spring of A.D. 161 by his adopted son, Marcus Aurelius, who at once associated with him in the government the other adopted son of Antoninus, Lucius Verus. Upon this, thinking that the opportunity for which he had been so long waiting had at last arrived, Volagases marched his troops suddenly into Armenia, expelled Sosemus, the king protected by the Romans, and established in his place a certain Tigranes, a scion of the old royal stock, whom the Armenians regarded as their rightful monarch. News of this bold stroke soon reached the governors of the adjacent Roman provinces, and Severianus, prefect of Cappadocia, a Gaul by birth, incited by the predictions of a pseudo-prophet of those parts, named Alexander, proceeded at the head of a legion into the adjoining kingdom, in the hope of crushing the nascent insurrection and punishing at once the Armenian rebels and their Parthian supporters. Scarcely, however, had he crossed the Euphrates, when he found himself confronted by an overwhelming force, commanded by a Parthian called Chosroes, and was compelled to throw himself into the city of Elegeia, where he was immediately surrounded and besieged. Various tales were told of his conduct under these circumstances, and of the fate which overtook him the most probable account being that after holding out for three days he and his troops were assailed on all sides, and, after a brave resistance, were shot down almost to a man. The Parthians then crossed the Euphrates, and carried fire and sword through Syria. Attidius Cornelianus, the proconsul, having ventured to oppose them, was repulsed. Vague thoughts of flying to arms and shaking off the Roman yoke possessed the minds of the Syrians, and threatened to lead to some overt act. The Parthians passed through Syria into Palestine, and almost the whole East seemed to lie open to their incursions. When these facts were reported at Rome, it was resolved to send Lucius Verus to the East. He was of an age to undergo the hardships of campaigning, and therefore better fitted than Marcus Aurelius to undertake the conduct of a great war. But, as his military talent was distrusted, it was considered necessary to place at his disposal a number of the best Roman generals of the time, whose services he might use while he claimed as his own their successes. Statius Priscus, Avidius Cassius, and Martius Verus, were the most important of these officers; and it was by them, and not by Verus himself, that the military operations were, in fact, conducted. It was not till late in the year A.D. 162 that Verus, having with reluctance torn himself from Italy, appeared, with his lieutenants, upon the scene in Syria, and, after vainly offering them terms of peace, commenced hostilities against the triumphant Parthians. The young Emperor did not adventure his own person in the field, but stationed himself at Antioch, where he could enjoy the pleasures and amusements of a luxurious capital, while he committed to his lieutenants the task of recovering Syria and Armenia, and of chastising the invaders. Avidius Cassius, to whom the Syrian legions were entrusted, had a hard task to bring them into proper discipline after their long period of inaction, but succeeded after a while by the use of almost unexampled severities. Attacked by Volagases within the limits of his province, he made a successful defence, and in a short time was able to take the offensive, to defeat Volagases in a great battle near Europus, and (A.D. 163) to drive the Parthians across the Euphrates. The Armenian war was at the same time being pressed by Statius Priscus, who advanced without a check from the frontier to the capital, Artaxata, which he took and (as it seems) destroyed. He then built a new city, which he strongly garrisoned with Roman troops, and sent intelligence of his successes to Rome, whither Soaemus, the expelled monarch, had betaken himself. Soasmus was upon this replaced on the Armenian throne, the task of settling him in the government being deputed to a certain Thucydides, by whose efforts, together with those of Martius Verus, all opposition to the restored monarch was suppressed, and the entire country tranquillized.

Rome had thus in the space of two years recovered her losses, and shown Parthia that she was still well able to maintain the position in Western Asia which she had acquired by the victories of Trajan. But such a measure of success did not content the ambitious generals into whose hands the incompetence of Verus had thrown the real direction of the war. Military distinction at this time offered to a Roman a path to the very highest honors, each successful general becoming at once by force of his position a candidate for the Imperial dignity. Of the various able officers employed under Verus, the most distinguished and the most ambitious was Cassius—a chief who ultimately raised the standard of revolt against Aurelius, and lost his life in consequence. Cassius, after he had succeeded in clearing Syria of the invaders, was made by Aurelius a sort of generalissimo; and being thus free to act as he chose, determined to carry the war into the enemy's country, and to try if he could not rival, or outdo, the exploits of Trajan fifty years previously. Though we have no continuous narrative of his expedition, we may trace its course with tolerable accuracy in the various fragmentary writings which bear upon the history of the time—from Zeugma, when he crossed the Euphrates into Mesopotamia, to Nicephorium, near the junction of the Belik with the Euphrates; and thence down the course of the stream to Sura (Sippara?) and Babylon. At Sura a battle was fought, in which the Romans were victorious; and then the final efforts were made, which covered Cassius with glory. The great city of Seleucia, upon the Tigris, which had a population of 400,000 souls, was besieged, taken, and burnt, to punish an alleged treason of the inhabitants. Ctesiphon, upon the opposite side of the stream, was occupied, and the summer palace of Volagases there situated was levelled with the ground. The various temples were plundered; secret places, where it was thought treasure might be hid, were examined, and a rich booty was carried off by the invaders. The Parthians, worsted in every encounter, ceased to resist; and all the conquests made by Trajan were recovered. Nor was this all. The Roman general, after conquering the Mesopotamian plain, advanced into the Zagros mountains, and occupied, at any rate, a portion of Media, thereby entitling his Imperial masters to add to the titles of "Armeniacus," and "Parthicus," which they had already assumed, the further and wholly novel title of "Medicus."

But Rome was not to escape the Nemesis which is wont to pursue the over-fortunate. During the stay of the army in Babylonia a disease was contracted of a strange and terrible character, whereto the superstitious fears of the soldiers assigned a supernatural origin. The pestilence, they said, had crept forth from a subterranean cell in the temple of Comsean Apollo at Seleucia, which those who were plundering the town rashly opened in the hope of its containing treasure, but which held nothing except this fearful scourge, placed there in primeval times by the spells of the Chaldaeans. Such a belief, however fanciful, was calculated to increase the destructive-power of the malady, and so to multiply its victims. Vast numbers of the soldiers perished, we are told, from its effects during the march homeward; their sufferings being further aggravated by the failure of supplies, which was such that; many died of famine. The stricken army, upon entering the Roman territory, communicated the infection to the inhabitants, and the return of Verus and his troops to Rome was a march of Death through the provinces. The pestilence raged with special force throughout Italy, and spread as far as the Rhine and the Atlantic Ocean. According to one writer more than one half of the entire population, and almost the whole Roman army, was carried off by it.

But though Rome suffered in consequence of the war, its general result was undoubtedly disadvantageous to the Parthians. The expedition of Cassius was the first invasion of Parthia in which Rome had been altogether triumphant. Trajan's campaign had brought about the submission of Armenia to the Romans; but it did not permanently deprive Parthia of any portion of her actual territory. And the successes of the Emperor in his advance were almost balanced by the disasters which accompanied his retreat—disasters so serious as to cause a general belief that Hadrian's concessions sprang more from prudence than from generosity. The war of Verus produced the actual cession to Rome of a Parthian province, which continued thenceforth for centuries to be an integral portion of the Roman Empire. Western Mesopotamia, or the tract between the Euphrates and the Khabour, passed under the dominion of Rome at this time; and, though not reduced to the condition of a province, was none the less lost to Parthia, and absorbed by Rome into her territory. Parthia, moreover, was penetrated by the Roman arms more deeply at this time than she had ever been previously, and was made to feel, as she had never felt before, that in contending with Rome she was fighting a losing battle. It added to the disgrace of her defeats, and to her own sense of their decisive character, that they were inflicted by a mere general, a man of no very great eminence, and one who was far from possessing the free command of those immense resources which Rome had at her disposal.

Parthia had now, in fact, entered upon the third stage of her decline. The first was reached when she ceased to be an aggressive and was content to become a stationary power; the second set in when she began to lose territory by the revolt of her own subjects; the third—which commences at this point—is marked by her inability to protect herself from the attacks of a foreign assailant. The causes of her decline were various. Luxury had no doubt done its ordinary work upon the conquerors of rich and highly-civilized regions, softening down their original ferocity, and rendering them at once less robust in frame and less bold and venturesome in character.

The natural law of exhaustion, which sooner or later affects all races of any distinction, may also not improbably have come into play, rendering the Parthians of the age of Verus very degenerate descendants of those who displayed such brilliant qualities when they contended with Crassus and Mark Antony. Loyalty towards the monarch, and the absolute devotion of every energy to his service, which characterized, the earlier times, dwindled and disappeared as the succession became more and more disputed, and the kings less worthy of their subjects' admiration. The strength needed against foreign enemies was, moreover, frequently expended in civil broils; the spirit of patriotism declined; and tameness under insult and indignity took the place of that fierce pride and fiery self-assertion which had once characterized the people.

The war with Rome terminated in the year A.D. 165. Volagases survived its close for at least twenty-five years; but he did not venture at any time to renew the struggle, or to make any effort for the recovery of his lost territory. Once only does he appear to have contemplated an outbreak. When, about the year A.D. 174 or 175, Aurelius being occupied in the west with repelling the attacks of the wild tribes upon the Danube, Avidius Cassius assumed the purple in Syria, and a civil war seemed to be imminent, Volagases appears to have shown an intention of once more taking arms and trying his fortune. A Parthian war was at this time expected to break out by the Romans. But the crisis passed without an actual explosion. The promptness of Aurelius, who, on hearing the news, at once quitted the Danube and marched into Syria, together with the rapid collapse of the Cassian revolt, rendered it imprudent for Volagases to persist in his project. He therefore laid aside all thought of renewing hostilities with Rome; and, on the arrival of Aurelius in Syria, sent ambassadors to him with friendly assurances, who were received favorably by the philosophic Emperor.

Four years after this Marcus Aurelius died, and was succeeded in the purple by his youthful son, Lucius Aurelius Commodus. It might have been expected that the accession of this weak and inexperienced prince would have induced Volagases to resume his warlike projects, and attempt the recovery of Mesopotamia. But the scanty history of the time which has come down to us shows no trace of his having entertained any such design. He had probably reached the age at which repose becomes a distinct object of desire, and is infinitely preferred to active exertion. At any rate, it is clear that he made no effort. The reign of Gommodus was from first to last untroubled by Oriental disturbance. Volgases III. was for ten years contemporary with this mean and unwarlike prince; but Rome was allowed to retain her Parthian conquests unmolested. At length, in A.D. 190 or 191, Volagases died,56 and the destinies of Parthia passed into the hands of a new monarch.














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