The Parthian Empire

The Roman Empire > Ancient Civilizations > Parthian Empire


Reign of Mithridates I

Reign of Mithridates I. Position of Bactria and Syria at his accession. His first war with Bactria. His great Expedition against the Eastern Syrian provinces, and its results. His second war with Bactria, terminating in its conquest. Extent of his Empire. Attempt of Demetrius Nicator to recover the lost Provinces fails. Captivity of Demetrius. Death of Mithridates.

The reign of Mithridates I. is the most important in the Parthian history. [PLATE 1. Fig. 3.] Receiving from his brother Phraates a kingdom of but narrow dimensions, confined (as it would seem) between the city of Charax on the one side, and the river Arius, or Hori-rud, on the other, he transformed it, within the space of thirty-seven years (which was the time that his reign lasted), into a great and nourishing Empire. It is not too much to say that, but for him, Parthia might have remained a more petty State on the outskirts of the Syrian kingdom, and, instead of becoming a rival to Rome, might have sunk shortly into obscurity and insignificance.

Plate 1.

As commonly happens in the grand changes which constitute the turning-points of history, the way for Mithridates's vast successes was prepared by a long train of antecedent circumstances. To show how the rise of the Parthians to greatness in the middle of the second century before our era was rendered possible, we must turn aside once more from our proper subject and cast a glance at the condition of the two kingdoms between which Parthia stood, at the time when Mithridates ascended the throne.

The Bactrian monarchs in their ambitious struggles to possess themselves of the tracts south of the Paropamisus, and extending from the Heri-rud to the Sutlej and the mouths of the Indus, overstrained the strength of their State, and by shifting the centre of its power injured irretrievably its principle of cohesion. As early as the reign of Demetrius a tendency to disruption showed itself, Eucratidas having held the supreme power for many years in Bactria itself, while Demetrius exercised authority on the southern side of the mountains. It is true that at the death of Demetrius this tendency was to a certain extent checked, since Eucratidas was then able to extend his sway over almost the whole of the Bactrian territory. But the old evil recurred shortly, though in a less pronounced form. Eucratidas, without being actually supplanted in the north by a rival, found that he could devote to that portion of the Empire but a small part of his attention. The southern countries and the prospect of southern and eastern conquests engrossed him. While he carried on successful wars with the Arachotians, the Drangians, and the Indians of the Punjaub region, his hold on the more northern countries was relaxed, and they began to slip from his grasp. Incursions of the nomad Scyths from the Steppes carried fire and sword over portions of these provinces, some of which were Even, it is probable, seized and occupied by the invaders.

Such was, it would seem, the condition of Bactria under Eucratidas, the contemporary of Mithridates. In Syria, Antiochus Epiphanes had succeeded his brother Seleucus IV. (Philopator) about a year before Mithridates ascended the Parthian throne. He was a prince of courage and energy; but his hands were fully occupied with wars in Egypt, Palestine, and Armenia, and the distant East could attract but a small share of his thought or attention. The claim put forward by Egypt to the possession of Coele-Syria and Palestine, promised to Ptolemy V. (it was affirmed) as a dowry with Cleopatra, the daughter of Antiochus the Great, led to hostilities in the south-west which lasted continuously for four years (B.C. 171 to B.C. 168), and were complicated during two of them with troubles in Judaea, rashly provoked by the Syrian monarch, who, unaware of the stubborn temper of the Jews, goaded them into insurrection. The war with Egypt came to an end in B.C. 168; it brought Syria no advantage, since Rome interposed, and required the restitution of all conquests. The war with the Jews had no such rapid termination. Antiochus, having not only plundered and desecrated the Temple, but having set himself to eradicate utterly the Jewish religion, and completely Hellenize the people, was met with the most determined resistance on the part of a moiety of the nation. A patriotic party rose up under devoted leaders, who asserted, and in the end secured, the independence of their country. Not alone during the remaining years of Epiphanes, but for half a century after his death, throughout seven reigns, the struggle continued; Judaea taking advantage of every trouble and difficulty in Syria to detach herself more and more completely from her oppressor; being a continual thorn in her side, a constant source of weakness, preventing more than anything else the recovery of her power. The triumph which Epiphanes obtained in the distant Armenia (B.C. 166-5), where he defeated and captured the king, Artaxias, was a poor set-off against the foe which he had created to himself at his doors through his cruelty and intolerance.

In another quarter, too, the Syrian power received a severe shake through the injudicious violence of Epiphanes. The Oriental temples had, in some instances, escaped the rapacity of Alexander's generals and "Successors;" their treasuries remained unviolated, and contained large hoards of the precious metals. Epiphanes, having exhausted his own exchequer by his wars and his lavish gifts, saw in these un-plundered stores a means of replenishing it, and made a journey into his south-eastern provinces for the purpose. The natives of Elymais, however, resisted his attempt, and proved strong enough to defeat it; the baffled monarch retired to Tabae, where he shortly afterward fell sick and died. In the popular belief his death was a judgment upon him for his attempted sacrilege; and in the exultation caused by the event the bands which joined these provinces to the Empire must undoubtedly have been loosened.

Nor did the removal of Epiphanes (B.C. 164) improve the condition of affairs in Syria. The throne fell to his son, Antiochus Eupator, a boy of nine, according to Appian, or, according to another authority, of twelve years of age. The regent, Lysias, exercised the chief power, and was soon engaged in a war with the Jews, whom the death of Epiphanes had encouraged to fresh efforts. The authority of Lysias was further disputed by a certain Philip, whom Epiphanes, shortly before his death, had made tutor to the young king. The claims of this tutor to the regent's office being supported by a considerable portion of the army, a civil war arose between him and Lysias, which raged for the greater part of two years (B.C. 163-2), terminating in the defeat and death of Philip. But Syrian affairs did not even then settle down into tranquillity. A prince of the Seleucid house, Demetrius by name, the son of Seleucus IV., and consequently the first cousin of Eupator, was at this time detained in Rome as a hostage, having been sent there during his father's lifetime as a security for his fidelity. Demetrius, with some reason, regarded his claim to the Syrian throne as better than that of his cousin, the son of the younger brother, and being in the full vigor of early youth, he determined to assert his pretensions in Syria, and to make a bold stroke for the crown. Having failed to obtain the Senate's consent to his quitting Italy, he took his departure secretly, crossed the Mediterranean in a Carthaginian vessel, and, landing in Asia, succeeded within a few months in establishing himself as Syrian monarch.

From this review it sufficiently appears that the condition of things, both in Syria and Bactria, was favorable to any aspirations which the power that lay between them might entertain after dominion and self-aggrandizement. The Syrian and Bactrian kings, at the time of Mithridates's accession, were, both of them, men of talent and energy; but the Syrian monarch was soon involved in difficulties at home, while the Bactrian had his attention attracted to prospects of advantage in a remote quarter, Mithridates might, perhaps, have attacked the territory of either with an equal chance of victory; and as his predecessor had set him the example of successful warfare on his western frontier, we might have expected his first efforts to have been in this direction, against the dependencies of Syria. But circumstances which we cannot exactly trace determined his choice differently. While Eucratidas was entangled in his Indian wars, Mithridates invaded the Bactrian territory where it adjoined Parthia, and added to his Empire, after a short struggle, two provinces, called respectively Turiua and that of Aspionus. It is conjectured that these provinces lay towards the north and the north-west, the one being that of the Turanians proper, and the other that of the Aspasiacae, who dwelt between the Jaxartes and the Oxus. But there is scarcely sufficient ground for forming even a conjecture on the subject, since speculation has nothing but the names themselves to rest upon.

Successful in this quarter, Mithridates, a few years later, having waited until the Syrian throne was occupied by the boy Eupator, and the two claimants of the regency, Lysias and Philip, were contending in arms for the supreme power, made suddenly an expedition towards the west, falling upon Media, which, though claimed by the Syrian kings as a province of their Empire, was perhaps at this time almost, if not quite, independent. The Medes offered a vigorous resistance to his attack; and, in the war which followed, each side had in turn the advantage; but eventually the Parthian prince proved victorious, and the great and valuable province of Media Magna was added to the dominons of the Arsacidae. A certain Bacasis was appointed to govern it, whether as satrap or as tributary monarch is not apparent; while the Parthian king, recalled towards home by a revolt, proceeded to crush rebellion before resuming his career of conquest.

The revolt which now occupied for a time the attention of Mithridates was that of Hyrcania. The Hyrcanians were Arians in race; they were brave and high-spirited, and under the Persian monarchs had enjoyed some exceptional privileges which placed them above the great mass of the conquered nations. It was natural that they should dislike the yoke of a Turanian people; and it was wise of them to make their effort to obtain their freedom before Parthia grew into a power against which revolt would be utterly hopeless. Hyrcania might now expect to be joined by the Medes, and even the Mardi, who were Arians like themselves, and could not yet have forgotten the pleasures of independence. But though the effort does not seem to have been ill-timed, it was unsuccessful. No aid was given to the rebels, so far as we hear, by any of their neighbors. Mithridates's prompt return nipped the insurrection in the bud; Hyrcania at once submitted, and became for centuries the obedient vassal of her powerful neighbor.

The conquest of Media had brought the Parthians into contact with the rich country of Susiana or Elymais; and it was not long before Mithridates, having crushed the Hyrcanian revolt, again advanced westward, and invaded this important province. Elymais appears to have a had a king of its own, who must either have been a vassal of the Seleucidse, or have acquired an independent position by revolt after the death of Epiphanes. In the war which followed between this monarch and Mithridates, the Elymseans proved wholly unsuccessful, and Mithridates rapidly overran the country and added it to his dominions. After this he appears to have received the submission of the Persians on the one hand and the Babylonians on the other, and to have rested on his laurels for some years, having extended the Parthian sway from the Hindoo Koosh to the Euphrates.

The chronological data which have come down to us for this period are too scanty to allow of any exact statement of the number of years occupied by Mithridates in effecting these conquests. All that can be said is that he appears to have commenced them about B.C. 163 and to have concluded them some time before B.C. 140, when he was in his turn attacked by the Syrians. Probably they had been all effected by the year B.C. 150; since there is reason to believe that about that time Mithridates found his power sufficiently established in the west to allow of his once more turning his attention eastward, and renewing his aggressions upon the Bactrian kingdom, which had passed from the rule of Eucratidas under that of his son and successor, Heliocles.

Heliocles, who was allowed by his father a quasi-royal position, obtained the full possession of the Bactrian throne by the crime of parricide. It is conjectured that he regarded with disapproval his father's tame submission to Parthian ascendency, and desired the recovery of the provinces which Eucratidas had been content to cede for the sake of peace. We are told that he justified his crime on the ground that his father was a public enemy; which is best explained by supposing that he considered him the friend of Bactria's great enemy, Parthia. If this be the true account of the circumstances under which he became king, his accession would have been a species of challenge to the Parthian monarch, whose ally he had assassinated. Mithridates accordingly marched against him with all speed, and, easily defeating his troops, took possession of the greater part of his dominion. Elated by this success, he is said to have pressed eastward, to have invaded India, and overrun the country as far as the river Hydaspes, but, if it be true that his arms penetrated so far, it is, at any rate, certain that he did not here effect any conquest. Greek monarchs of the Bactrian series continued masters of Oabul and Western India till about B.C. 126; no Parthian coins are found in this region; nor do the best authorities claim for Mithridates any dominion beyond the mountains which enclose on the west the valley of the Indus.

By his war with Heliocles the empire of Mithridates reached its greatest extension. It comprised now, besides Parthia Proper, Bactria, Aria, Drangiana, Arachosia, Margiana, Hyrcania, the country of the Mardi, Media Magna, Susiana, Persia and Babylonia. Very probably its limits were still wider. The power which possessed Parthia, Hyrcania, and Bactria, would rule almost of necessity over the whole tract between the Elburz range and the Oxus, if not even over the region between the Oxus and the Jaxartes; that which held the Caspian mountains and eastern Media could not fail to have influence over the tribes of the Iranic desert; while Assyria Proper would naturally follow the fortunes of Babylonia and Susiana. Still the extent of territory thus indicated rests only on conjecture. If we confine ourselves to what is known by positive evidence, we can only say that the Parthian Kingdom of this period contained, at least, twelve provinces above enumerated. It thus stretched from east to west a distance of fifteen hundred miles between the Suleiman mountains and the Euphrates, varying in width from three or four hundred miles—or even more—towards the west and east, to a narrow strip of less than a hundred miles toward the centre. It probably comprised an area of about 450,000 square miles; which is somewhat less than that of the modern Persia.

Unlike the modern Persia, however, the territory consisted almost entirely of productive regions. The excellent quality of the soil in Parthia Proper, Hyrcania, and Margiana, has been already noticed. Bactria, the next province to Margiana towards the east, was less uniformly fertile; but still it contained a considerable proportion of good land along the course of the Oxus and its tributaries, which was cultivated in vineyards and cornfields, or else pastured large herds of cattle. The Mardian mountain territory was well wooded; and the plain between the mountains and the Caspian was rich in the extreme. Media, where it adjoined on the desert, was comparatively sterile; but still even here an elaborate system of artificial irrigation brought a belt of land under culture. Further west, in the Zagros chain, Media comprised some excellent pasture lands, together with numerous valleys as productive as any in Asia. Elymais was, in part, of the same character with the mountainous portion of Media, while beyond the mountain it sank down into a rich alluvium, not much inferior to the Babylonian. Babylonia itself was confessedly the most fertile country in Asia. It produced wheat, barley, millet, sesame, vetches, dates, and fruits of all kinds. The return of the wheat crop was from fifty to a hundred-and-fifty-fold; while that of the barley crop was three hundred-fold. The dates were of unusual size and superior flavor; and the palm, which abounded throughout the region, furnished an inexhaustible supply both of fruit and timber.

The great increase of power which Mithridates had obtained by his conquests could not be a matter of indifference to the Syrian monarchs. Their domestic troubles—the contentions between Philip and Lysias, between Lysias and Demetrius Soter, Soter and Alexander Balas, Balas and Demetrius II., Demetrius II. and Tryphon, had so engrossed them for the space of twenty years (from B.C. 162 to B.C. 142) that they had felt it impossible, or hopeless, to attempt any expedition towards the East, for the protection or recovery of their provinces. Mithridates had been allowed to pursue his career of conquest unopposed, so far as the Syrians were concerned, and to establish his sway from the Hindoo Koosh to the Euphrates. But a time at last came when home dangers were less pressing, and a prospect of engaging the terrible Parthians with success seemed to present itself. The second Demetrius had not, indeed, wholly overcome his domestic enemy, Tryphon; but he had so far brought him into difficulties as to believe that he might safely be left to be dealt with by his wife, Cleopatra, and by his captains. At the same time the condition of affairs in the East seemed to invite his interference, Mithridates ruled his new conquests with some strictness, suspecting, probably, their fidelity, and determined that he would not by any remissness allow them to escape from his grasp. The native inhabitants could scarcely be much attached to the Syro-Macedonians, who had certainly not treated them very tenderly; but a possession of 170 years' duration confers prestige in the East, and a strange yoke may have galled more than one to whose pressure they had become accustomed. Moreover, all the provinces which Parthia took from Syria contained Greek towns, and their inhabitants might at all times be depended on to side with their countrymen against the Asiatics. At the present conjuncture, too, the number of the malcontents was swelled by the addition of the recently subdued Bactrians, who hated the Parthian yoke, and longed earnestly for a chance of recovering their freedom. Thus when Demetrius II., anxious to escape the reproach of inertness, determined to make an expedition against the great Parthian monarch, he found himself welcomed as a deliverer by a considerable number of his enemy's subjects, whom the harshness, or the novelty, of the Parthian rule had offended. The malcontents joined his standard as he advanced; and supported, as he thus was, by Persian, Elymsen, and Bactrian contingents, he engaged and defeated the Parthians in several battles. Upon this, Mithridates, finding himself inferior in strength, had recourse to stratagem, and having put Demetrius off his guard by proposals of peace, attacked him, defeated him, and took him prisoner. The invading army appears to have been destroyed. The captive monarch was, in the first instance, conveyed about to the several nations which had revolted, and paraded before each in turn, as a proof to them of their folly in lending him aid, but afterwards he was treated in a manner befitting his rank and the high character of his captor. Assigned a residence in Hyrcania, he was maintained in princely state, and was even promised by Mithridates the hand of his daughter, Ehodo-guns. The Parthian monarch, it is probable, had the design of conquering Syria, and thought it possible that he might find it of advantage to have a Syrian prince in his camp, well disposed towards him, connected by marriage, and thus fitted for the position of tributary monarch. But the schemes of Mithridates proved abortive. His career had now reached its close. Attacked by illness not very long after his capture of Demetrius, his strength proved insufficient to bear up against the malady, and he died after a glorious reign of about thirty-eight years, B.C. 136.














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