The Parthian Empire

The Roman Empire > Ancient Civilizations > Parthian Empire


Consolidation of the Parthian Kingdom

Consolidation of the Parthian Kingdom. Death of Tiridates and accession of Arsaces III. Attack on Media. War of Artabanus (Arsaces III.) with Antiochus the Great. Period of inaction. Great development of Bactrian power. Reigns of Priapatius (Arsaces IV.) and Phraates I. (Arsaces V.)

Selbucus might perhaps not have accepted his defeat as final had he been altogether free to choose whether he would continue the Parthian war or no. The resources of his Empire were so vast, his command of men and money so unbounded, that he could easily have replaced one army by another, and so have prolonged the struggle. But renewed troubles had broken out in the western portion of his dominions, where his brother, Antiochus Hierax, was still in arms against his authority. Seleucus felt it necessary to turn his attention to this quarter, and having once retired from the Parthian contest, he never afterwards renewed it. Tiridates was left unmolested, to act as he thought fit, and either to attempt further conquests, or to devote himself to securing those which he had effected. He chose the latter course, and during the remainder of his reign—a space of above twenty years—he employed himself wholly in strengthening and adorning his small kingdom. Having built a number of forts in various strong positions, and placed garrisons in them, he carefully selected a site for a new city, which he probably intended to make his capital. The spot chosen combined the advantages of being at once delightful and easily defensible. It was surrounded with precipitous rocks, which enclosed a plain of extraordinary fertility. Abundant wood and copious streams of water were in the neighborhood. The soil was so rich that it scarcely required cultivation, and the woods were so full of game as to afford endless amusement to hunters. To the town which he built in this locality Tiridates gave the name of Dara, a word which the Greeks and Romans elongated into Dareium. Unfortunately, modern travellers have not yet succeeded in identifying the site, which should, however, lie towards the East, perhaps in the vicinity of Meshed.

We may presume that Tiridates, when he built this remarkable city, intended to make it the seat of government. Hecatompylos, as a Greek town, had the same disadvantages, which were considered in later times to render Seleucia unfit for the residence of the Parthian Court and monarch. Dara, like Ctesiphon, was to be wholly Parthian. Its strong situation would render it easy of defence; its vicinity to forests abounding in game would give it special charms in the eyes of persons so much devoted, as the Parthian princes were, to the chase. But the intention of Tiridates, if we have truly defined it, failed of taking permanent effect. He may himself have fixed his abode at Dara, but his successors did not inherit his predilections; and Hecatompylos remained, after his reign, as before it, the head-quarters of the government, and the recognized metropolis of Parthia Proper.

After passing in peace and prosperity the last twenty years of his reign, Tiridates died in a good old age, leaving his crown to a son, whose special name is a little uncertain, but who is called by most moderns Artabanus I.

Artabanus, having ascended the Parthian throne about B.C. 214, and being anxious to distinguish himself, took advantage of the war raging between Antiochus III., the second son of Seleucus Callinicus, and Achseus, one of his rebel satraps, to advance into Media, and to add to his dominions the entire tract between Hyrcania and the Zagros mountains. Of the manner in which he effected his conquests we have no account; but they seem to have been the fruit of a single campaign, which must have been conducted with great vigor and military skill. The Parthian prince appears to have occupied Ecbatana, the ancient capital of the Median Empire, and to have thence threatened the Mesopotamian countries. Upon receiving intelligence of his invasion, Antiochus levied a vast army, and set out towards the East, with a determination to subjugate all the revolted provinces, and to recover the limits of the old Empire of Nicator. Passing the Zagros chain, probably by way of Behistun and Kermanshaw, he easily retook Ecbatana, which was an open town, and undefended by the Parthians, and proceeded to prepare for a further advance eastward. The route from Ecbatana to the Caspian Gates crosses, of necessity, unless a considerable circuit be taken, some large tracts of barren ground, inlets or bays of the Great Salt Desert of Iran. Artabanus cherished the hope that here the difficulties of the way would effectually bar his enemy's progress, more especially as his troops were so numerous, and as water was scanty throughout the whole region. The streams which flow from Zagros towards the East are few and scanty; they mostly fail in summer, which, even in Asia, is the campaigning season; and those who cross the desert at this time must depend on the wells wherewith the more western part of the region is supplied by means of kanats or underground conduits, which are sometimes carried many miles from the foot of the mountains. The position of the wells, which were few in number, was known only to the natives; and Artabanus hoped that the Syrian monarch would be afraid to place the lives of his soldiers in such doubtful keeping. When, however, he found that Antiochus was not to be deterred by any fears of this kind, but was bent on crossing the desert, he had recourse to the barbaric expedients of filling in, or poisoning, the wells along the line of route-which the Syrian prince was likely to follow. But these steps seem to have been taken too late. Antiochus, advancing suddenly, caught some of the Parthian troops at their barbarous work, and dispersed them without difficulty. He then rapidly effected the transit, and, pressing forward, was soon in the enemy's country, where he occupied the chief city, Hecatompylos. Up to this point the Parthian monarch had declined an engagement. No information has come down to us as to his motives; but they may be readily enough conjectured. To draw an enemy far away from his resources, while retiring upon one's own; to entangle a numerous host among narrow passes and denies; to decline battle when he offers it, and then to set upon him unawares, has always been the practice of weak mountain races when attacked by a more numerous foe. It is often good policy in such a case even to yield the capital without a blow, and to retreat into a more difficult situation. The assailant must follow whithersoever his foe retires, or quit the country, leaving him unsubdued. Antiochus, aware of this necessity, and rendered confident of success by the evacuation of a situation so strong, and so suitable for the Parthian tactics as Hecatompylos, after giving his army a short rest at the captured capital, set out in pursuit of Artabanus, who had withdrawn his forces towards Hyrcania. To reach the rich Hyrcanian valleys, he was forced to cross the main chain of the Elburz, which here attains an elevation of 7000 or 8000 feet. The route which his army had to follow was the channel of a winter-torrent, obstructed with stones and trunks of trees, partly by nature, partly by the efforts of the inhabitants. The long and difficult ascent was disputed by the enemy the whole way, and something like a pitched battle was fought at the top; but Antiochus persevered, and, though his army must have suffered severely, descended into Hyrcanian and captured several of the towns. Here our main authority, Polybius, suddenly deserts us, and we can give no further account of the war beyond its general result—Artabanus and the Parthians remained unsubdued after a struggle which seems to have lasted some years; Artabanus himself displayed great valor; and at length the Syrian monarch thought it best to conclude a peace with him, in which he acknowledged the Parthian independence. It is probable that he exacted in return a pledge that the Parthian monarch should lend him his assistance in the expedition which he was bent on conducting against Bactria; but there is no actual proof that the conditions of peace contained this clause. We are left in doubt whether Artabanus stood aloof in the war which Antiochus waged with Euthydemus of Bactria immediately after the close of his Parthian campaigns, or whether he lent his aid to the attempt made to crush his neighbor. Perhaps, on the whole, it is most probable that, nominally, he was Antiochus's ally in the war, but that, practically, he gave him little help, having no wish to see Syria aggrandized.

At any rate, whether Euthydemus had to meet the attack of Syria only, or of Syria and Parthia in combination, the result was, that Bactria, like Parthia, proved strong enough to maintain her ground, and that the Syrian King, after a while, grew tired of the struggle, and consented to terms of accommodation. The Bactrian monarchy, like the Parthian, came out of the contest unscathed—indeed we may go further, and say that the position of the two kingdoms was improved by the attacks made upon them. If a prince possessing the personal qualities that distinguished the third Antiochus, and justified the title of "Great" which he derived from his oriental expedition—if such a prince, enjoying profound peace at home, and directing the whole force of his empire against them, could not succeed in reducing to subjection the revolted provinces of the northeast, but, whatever military advantages he might gain, found conquest impossible, and returned home, having acknowledged as independent kings those whom he went out to chastise as rebellious satraps, it was evident that the kingdoms might look upon themselves as firmly established, or, at least, as secure from the danger of re-absorption into the Syrian State. The repulse of Callinicus was a probable indication of the fate of all future efforts on the part of Syria to reduce Parthia; the conditions of peace granted by Antiochus to both countries, after a series of military successes, constituted almost a proof that the yoke of Syria would never be re-imposed on either the Parthian or the Bactrian nation.

With the departure of Antiochus from the East, about B.C. 206, we enter upon a period when Parthian history is, for a quarter of a century, almost a blank. Nothing more is known of Arsaces III. after Antiochus retired; and nothing at all is known of his successor, Priapatius, beyond his name and the length of his reign, which lasted for fifteen years (from about B.C. 196 to 181). The reigns of these princes coincide with those of Euthydemus and his son, Demetrius, in Bactria; and perhaps the most probable solution of the problem of Parthian inactivity at this time is to be found in the great development of Bactrian power which now took place, and the influence which the two neighboring kingdoms naturally exercised upon each other. When Parthia was strong and aggressive, Bactria was, for the most part, quiet; and when Bactria shows signs of vigorous and active life, Parthia languishes and retires into the shade.

The Bactrian Kingdom, founded (as we have seen) a little before the Parthian, sought from the first its aggrandizement in the East rather than in the West. The Empire of Alexander had included all the countries between the Caspian Sea and the Sutlej; and these tracts, which constitute the modern Khorasan, Afghanistan, and Punjaub, had all been to a certain extent Hellenized by means of Greek settlements and Greek government. But Alexander was no sooner dead than a tendency displayed itself in these regions, and particularly in the more eastern ones, towards a relapse into barbarism, or, if this expression be too strong, at any rate towards a rejection of Hellenism. During the early wars of the "Successors" the natives of the Punjaub generally seized the opportunity to revolt; the governors placed over the various districts by Alexander were murdered; and the tribes everywhere declared themselves free. Among the leaders of the revolt was a certain Chandragupta (or Sandracottus), who contrived to turn the circumstances of the time to his own special advantage, and built up a considerable kingdom in the far East out of the fragments which had detached themselves from what was still called the Macedonian Empire. When Seleucus Nicator, about B.C. 305, conducted an expedition across the Indus, he found this monarch established in the tract between the Indus and the Ganges, ruling over extensive dominions and at the head of a vast force. It is uncertain whether the two rivals engaged in hostilities or no. At any rate, a peace was soon made; and Seleucus, in return for five hundred elephants, ceded to Sandracottus certain lands on the west bank of the Indus, which had hitherto been regarded as Macedonian. These probably consisted of the low grounds between the Indus and the foot of the mountains—the districts of Peshawur, Bunnoo, Murwut, Shikarpoor, and Kurrachee—which are now in British occupation. Thus Hellenism in these parts receded more and more, the Sanskritic Indians recovering by degrees the power and independence of which they had been deprived by Alexander.

This state of things could not have been pleasing to the Greek princes of Bactria, who must have felt that the reaction towards barbarism in these parts tended to isolate them, and that there was a danger of their being crushed between the Parthians on the one hand and the perpetually advancing Indians on the other. When Antiochus the Great, after concluding his treaty with Euthydemus, marched eastward, the Bactrian monarch probably indulged in hopes that the Indians would receive a check, and that the Greek frontier would be again carried to the Indus, if not to the Sutlej. But, if so, he was disappointed. Antiochus, instead of making war upon the Indians, contented himself with renewing the old alliance of the Seleucidae with the Maurja princes, and obtaining a number of elephants from Sophagesenus, the grandson of Sandracottus. It is even possible that he went further, and made cessions of territory in return for this last gift, which brought the Indian frontier still nearer than before to that of Bactria, At any rate, the result of the Indian expedition of Antiochus seems to have been unsatisfactory to Euthydemus, who shortly afterwards commenced what are called "Indian Wars" on his south-eastern frontier, employing in them chiefly the arms of his son, Demetrius. During the latter years of Euthydemus and the earlier ones of Demetrius, the Bactrian rule was rapidly extended over the greater portion of the modern Afghanistan; nor did it even stop there. The arms of Demetrius were carried across the Indus into the Punjaub region; and the city of Euthymedeia upon the Hydaspes remained to later times an evidence of the extent of his conquests. From B.C. 206 to about B.C. 185 was the most flourishing period of the Bactrian monarchy, which expanded during that space from a small kingdom into a considerable empire.

The power and successes of the Bactrian princes at this time account sufficiently for the fact that the contemporary Parthian monarchs stood upon their guard, and undertook no great expeditions. Arsaces III., who continued on the throne for about ten or twelve years after his peace with Antiochus, and Priapatius, or Arsaces IV., his son, who succeeded him, and had a reign of fifteen years, were content, as already observed, to watch over their own State, husbanding its resources, and living at peace with all their neighbors. It was not till Phraates I. (Arsaces V.), the son of Priapatius, had mounted the throne, B.C. 181, that this policy was departed from, and Parthia, which had remained tranquil for a quarter of a century, once more aroused herself, and assumed an attitude of aggression.

The quarter to which Phraates I. directed his arms was the country of the Mardians, a poor but warlike people, who appear to have occupied a portion of the Elburz range, probably that immediately south of Mazanderan and Asterabad. The reduction of these fierce mountaineers is likely to have occupied him for some years, since their country was exceedingly strong and difficult. Though the Mardi were (nominally, at any rate) subjects of the Seleucidae, we do not hear of any assistance being rendered them, or, indeed, of any remonstrance being made against the unprovoked aggression of the Parthian monarch. The reign of Phraates I. in Parthia coincides with that of Seleucus IV. (Philopator) in Syria; and we may account for the inactivity of this prince, in part by his personal character, which was weak and pacific, in part by the exhaustion of Syria at the time, in consequence of his father's great war with Rome (B.C. 197-190), and of the heavy contribution which was imposed upon him at the close of it. Syria may scarcely have yet recovered sufficient strength to enter upon a new struggle, especially one with a distant and powerful enemy. The material interests of the Empire may also have seemed to be but little touched by the war, since the Mardi were too poor to furnish much tribute; and it is possible, if not even probable, that their subjection to Syria had long been rather formal than real. Seleucus therefore allowed the Mardians to be reduced, conceiving, probably, that their transfer to the dominion of the Arsacidse neither increased the Parthian power nor diminished his own.

But the nation which submits to be robbed of a province, however unproductive and valueless, must look to having the process repeated at intervals, until it bestirs itself and offers resistance. There is reason to believe that Phraates had no sooner conquered the Mardians than he cast his eyes on an adjacent district, and resolved to add it to his territories. This was the tract lying immediately to the West of the Caspian Gates, which was always reckoned to Media, forming, however, a distinct district, know as Media Rhagiana. It was a region of much natural fertility, being watered by numerous streams from the Elburz range, and possessing a soil of remarkable productiveness. Its breadth was not great, since it consisted of a mere strip between the mountains and the Salt Desert which occupies the whole centre of the Iranic tableland; but it extended in length at least a hundred and fifty miles, from the Caspian Gates to the vicinity of Kasvin. Its capital city, from a remote antiquity, was Rbages, situated near the eastern extremity of the strip, probably at the spot now called Kaleh Erij, about twenty-three miles from the "Gates." On this region it is clear that Phraates cast a covetous eye. How much of it he actually occupied is doubtful; but it is at least certain that he effected a lodgment in its eastern extremity, which must have put the whole region in jeopardy. Nature has set a remarkable barrier between the more eastern and the more western portions of Occidental Asia, about midway in the tract which lies due south of the Caspian Sea. The Elburz range in this part is one of so tremendous a character, and northward abuts so closely on the Caspian, that all communication between the east and the west necessarily passes to the south of it. In this quarter the Great Desert offering an insuperable obstacle to transit, the line of communication has to cling to the flanks of the mountain chain, the narrow strip between the mountains and the desert—rarely ten miles in width—being alone traversable. But about long. 52 20' this strip itself fails. A rocky spur runs due south from the Elburz into the desert for a distance of some twenty or thirty miles, breaking the line of communication, and seeming at first sight to obstruct it completely. This, however, is not the case absolutely. The spur itself is penetrable by two passes, one where it joins the Elburz, which is the more difficult of the two, and another, further to the south, which is easier. The latter now known as the Girduni Sudurrah pass, constitutes the famous "Pylae Caspiae." Through this pass alone can armies proceed from Armenia, Media, and Persia eastward, or from Turkestan, Khorasan, and Afghanistan into the more western parts of Asia. The position is therefore one of primary importance. It was to guard it that Rhages was built so near the eastern end of its territory. So long as it remained in the possession of Syria, Parthian aggression was checked. Rhagiana, the rest of Media, and the other provinces were safe, or nearly so. On the other hand, the loss of it to Parthia laid the eastern provinces open to her, and was at once almost equivalent to the loss of all Rhagiana, which had no other natural protection. Now we find that Phraates surmounted the "Gates," and effected a lodgment in the plain country beyond them. He removed a portion of the conquered Mardians from their mountain homes to the city of Charax, which was on the western side of the Gates, probably on the site now occupied by the ruins known as Uewanikif. Their location in this strong post was a menace to the neighboring town of Rhages, which can scarcely have maintained itself long against an enemy encamped at its doors. We are not informed, however, of any results which followed on the occupation of Charax during the lifetime of Phraates. His reign lasted only seven years—from B.C. 181 to B.C. 174—and it is thus probable that he died before there was time for his second important conquest to have any further consequences.

Phraates had sufficient warning of his coming decease to make preparations with respect to a successor. Though he had several sons, some of whom were (we must suppose) of sufficient age to have ascended the throne, he left his crown to his brother, Mithridates. He felt, probably, that the State required the direction of a firm hand, that war might at any time break out with either Syria or Bactria; while, if the career of conquest on which he had made Parthia enter were to be pursued, he could trust his brother better than any of his sons to conduct aggressive expeditions with combined vigor and prudence. We shall see, as the history proceeds, how Mithridates justified his choice. Phraates would also appear to have borne his brother especial affection, since he takes the name of "Philadelphus" (brother-loving) upon his coins. It must have been a satisfaction to him that he was able by his last act at once to consult for the good of his country, and to gratify a sentiment on which it is evident that he prided himself.














ancient civilizations