Expedition of Antiochus Sidetes against Parthia

Reign of Phraates II. Expedition of Antiochus Sidetes against Parthia. Release of Demetrius. Defeat and Death of Sidetes. War of Phraates with the Northern Nomads. His death and character.

Mithridates was succeeded by his son, Phraates, the second monarch of the name, and the seventh Arsaces. This prince, entertaining, like his father, the design of invading Syria, and expecting to find some advantage from having in his camp the rightful occupant of the Syrian throne, treated the captive Demetrius with even greater kindness than his father had done, not only maintaining him handsomely, but even giving him his sister Ehodogune, in marriage. Demetrius, however, was not to be reconciled to his captivity by any such blandishments, and employed his thoughts chiefly in devising plans by which he might escape. By the help of a friend he twice managed to evade the vigilance of his guards, and to make his way from Hyrcania towards the frontiers of his own kingdom; but each time he was pursued and caught without effecting his purpose. The Parthian monarch was no doubt vexed at his pertinacity, and on the second occasion thought it prudent to feign, if he did not even really feel, offence: he banished his ungrateful brother-in-law from his presence, but otherwise visited his crime with no severer penalty than ridicule. Choosing to see in his attempts to change the place of his abode no serious design, but only the wayward conduct of a child, he sent him a present of some golden dice, implying thereby that it was only for lack of amusement he had grown discontented with his Hyrcanian residence.

Antiochus Sidetes, the brother of Demetrius, had been generally accepted by the Syrians as their monarch, at the time when the news reached them of that prince's defeat and capture by Mithridates. He was an active and enterprising sovereign, though fond of luxury and display. For some years (B.C. 140-137) the pretensions of Tryphon to the throne gave him full occupation; but, having finally established his authority after a short war, and punished the pretender with death, he found himself, in B.C. 137, at liberty to turn his arms against foreign enemies. He would probably have at once attacked Parthia, but for the attitude of a nearer neighbor, which he regarded as menacing, and as requiring his immediate attention. Demetrius, before his departure for the East, had rewarded the Jews for services rendered him in his war with Tryphon by an open, acknowledgment of their independence. Sidetes, though indebted to the Jewish High Priest, Simon, for offers of aid against the same adversary, could not bring himself to pay the price for it which Demetrius had thought reasonable—an independent Palestine appeared to him a danger close to his doors, and one that imperilled the very existence of the Syrian State. Accordingly, he had no sooner put down Tryphon than he resolved to pick a quarrel with the Jews, and to force them to resume their old position of vassalage to Syria. His general, Cendebseus, invaded their country, but was defeated near Azotus. Antiochus had to take the field in person. During two years, John Hyrcanus, who had succeeded his father, Simon (B.C. 135), baffled all his efforts; but at last, in B.C. 133, he was forced to submit, to acknowledge the authority of Syria, to dismantle Jerusalem, and to resume the payment of tribute. Sidetes then considered the time come for a Parthian expedition, and, having made great preparations, he set out for the East in the spring of B.C. 129.

It is impossible to accept without considerable reserve the accounts that have come down to us of the force which Antiochus collected. According to Justin, it consisted of no more than 80,000 fighting men, to which was attached the incredible number of 300,000 camp-followers, the majority being composed of cooks, bakers, and actors. As in other extreme cases the camp-followers do but equal or a little exceed the number of men fit for service, this estimate, which makes them nearly four times as numerous, is entitled to but little credit. The late writer, Orosius, corrects the error here indicated; but his account seems to err in rating the supernumeraries too low. According to him, the armed force amounted to 300,000, while the camp-followers, including grooms, sutlers, courtesans, and actors, were no more than a third of the number. From the two accounts, taken together, we are perhaps entitled to conclude that the entire host did not fall much short of 400,000 men. This estimate receives confirmation from an independent statement made by Diodorus, with respect to the number who fell in the campaign—a statement of which we shall have to speak later.

The army of Phraates, according to two accounts of it (which, however, seem to represent a single original authority), numbered no more than 120,000. An attempt which he made to enlist in his service a body of Scythian mercenaries failed, the Scyths being willing to lend their aid, but arriving too late to be of any use. At the same time a defection of the subject princes deprived the Parthian monarch of contingents which usually swelled his numbers, and threw him upon the support of his own countrymen, chiefly or solely. Under these circumstances it is more surprising that he was able to collect 120,000 men than that he did not bring into the field a larger number.

The Syrian troops, magnificently appointed and supported by a body of Jews under John Hyrcanus, advanced upon Babylon, receiving on their way the adhesion of many of the Parthian tributaries, who professed themselves disgusted by the arrogance and pride of their masters. Phraates, on his part, advanced to meet his enemies, and in person or by his generals engaged Antiochus in three battles, but without success. Antiochus was three times a conqueror. In a battle fought upon the river Lycus (Zab) in further Assyria he defeated the Parthian general, Indates, and raised a trophy in honor of his victory. The exact scene of the other combats is unknown, but they were probably in the same neighborhood. The result of them was the conquest of Babylonia, and the general revolt of the remaining Parthian provinces, which followed the common practice of deserting a falling house, and drew off or declared for the enemy.

Under these circumstances Phraates, considering that the time was come when it was necessary for him to submit or to create a diversion by raising troubles in the enemy's territory, released Demetrius from his confinement, and sent him, supported by a body of Parthian troops, to reclaim his kingdom. He thought it probable that Antiochus, when the intelligence reached him, would retrace his steps, and return from Babylon to his own capital. At any rate his efforts would be distracted; he would be able to draw fewer reinforcements from home; and he would be less inclined to proceed to any great distance from his own country.

Antiochus, however, was either uninformed of the impending danger or did not regard it as very pressing. The winter was approaching; and, instead of withdrawing his troops from the occupied provinces and marching them back into Syria, he resolved to keep them where they were, merely dividing them, on account of their numbers, among the various cities which he had taken, and making them go into winter quarters. It was, no doubt, his intention to remain quiet during the two or three winter months, after which he would have resumed the war, and have endeavored to penetrate through Media into Parthia Proper, where he might expect his adversary to make his last stand.

But Phraates saw that the position of affairs was favorable for striking a blow before the spring came. The dispersion of his enemy's troops deprived him of all advantage from the superiority of their numbers. The circumstance of their being quartered in towns newly reduced, and unaccustomed to the rudeness and rapacity of soldiers and camp-followers, made it almost certain that complications would arise, and that it would not be long before in some places the Parthians, so lately declared to be oppressors, would be hailed as liberators. Moreover, the Parthians were, probably, better able than their adversaries to endure the hardships and severities of a campaign in the cold season. Parthia is a cold country, and the winters, both of the great plateau of Iran and of all the mountain tracts adjoining it, are severe. The climate of Syria is far milder. Moreover, the troops of Antiochus had, we are informed, been enervated by an excessive indulgence on the part of their leader during the marches and halts of the preceding summer. Their appetites had been pampered; their habits had become unmanly; their general tone was relaxed; and they were likely to deteriorate still more in the wealthy and luxurious cities where they were bidden to pass the winter.

These various circumstances raised the spirits of Phraates, and made him hold himself in readiness to resume hostilities at a moment's notice. Nor was it long before the complications which he had foreseen began to occur. The insolence of the soldiers quartered upon them exasperated the inhabitants of the Mesopotamian towns, and caused them to look back with regret to the time when they were Parthian subjects. The requisitions made on them for stores of all kinds was a further grievance. After a while they opened communications with Phraates, and offered to return to their allegiance if he would assist them against their oppressors. Phraates gladly listened to these overtures. At his instigation a plot was formed like that which has given so terrible a significance to the phrase "Sicilian vespers." It was agreed that on an appointed day all the cities should break out in revolt: the natives should take arms, rise against the soldiers quartered upon them, and kill all, or as many as possible. Phraates promised to be at hand with his army, to prevent, the scattered detachments from giving help to each other. It was calculated that in this way the invaders might be cut off almost to a man without the trouble of even fighting a battle.

But, before he proceeded to extremities, the Parthian prince determined to give his adversary a chance of escaping the fate prepared for him by timely concessions. The winter was not over; but the snow was beginning to melt through the increasing warmth of the sun's rays, and the day appointed for the general rising was probably drawing near. Phraates felt that no time was to be lost. Accordingly, he sent ambassadors to Antiochus to propose peace, and to inquire on what conditions it would be granted him. The reply of Antiochus, according to Diodotus, was as follows: "If Phraates would release his prisoner, Demetrius, from captivity, and deliver him up without ransom, at the same time restoring all the provinces which had been taken from Syria, and consenting to pay a tribute for Parthia itself, peace might be had; but not otherwise." To such terms it was, of course, impossible that Phraates should listen; and his ambassadors, therefore, returned without further parley.

Soon afterwards the day appointed for the outbreak arrived. Apparently, no suspicion had been excited. The Syrian troops were everywhere quietly enjoying themselves in their winter quarters, when, suddenly and without warning, they found themselves attacked by the natives. Taken at disadvantage, it was impossible for them to make a successful resistance; and it would seem that the great bulk of them were massacred in their quarters. Antiochus, and the detachment stationed with him, alone, so far as we hear, escaped into an open field and contended for their lives in just warfare. It had been the intention of the Syrian monarch, when he took the field, to hasten to the protection of the troops quartered nearest to him; but he no sooner commenced his march than he found himself confronted by Phraates, who was at the head of his entire army, having, no doubt, anticipated Antiochus's design and resolved to frustrate it. The Parthian prince was anxious to engage at once, as his force far outnumbered that commanded by his adversary; but the latter might have declined the battle, if he had so willed, and have, at any rate, greatly protracted the struggle. He had a mountain region—Mount Zagros, probably—within a short distance of him, and might have fallen back upon it, so placing the Parthian horse at great disadvantage; but he was still at an age when caution is apt to be considered cowardice, and temerity to pass for true courage. Despite the advice of one of his captains, he determined to accept the battle which the enemy offered, and not to fly before a foe whom he had three times defeated. But the determination of the commander was ill seconded by his army. Though Antiochus fought strenuously, he was defeated, since his troops were without heart and offered but a poor resistance. Antiochus himself perished, either slain by the enemy or by his own hand. His son, Seleucus, a boy of tender age, and his niece, a daughter of Demetrius, who had accompanied him in his expedition, were captured. His troops were either cut to pieces or made prisoners. The entire number of those slain in the battle, and in the previous massacre, was reckoned at 300,000.

Such was the issue of this great expedition. It was the last which any Seleucid monarch conducted into these countries—the final attempt made by Syria to repossess herself of her lost Eastern provinces. Henceforth Parthia was no further troubled by the power that had hitherto been her most dangerous enemy, but was allowed to enjoy without molestation from Syria the conquests which she had effected. Syria, in fact, had from this time a difficulty in preserving her own existence. The immediate result of the destruction of Antiochus and his host was the revolt of Judaea, which henceforth maintained its independence uninterruptedly. The dominions of the Seleucidae were reduced to Cilicia and Syria Proper, or the tract west of the Euphrates, between Amanus and Palestine. Internally, the state was agitated by constant commotions from the claims of various pretenders to the sovereignty: externally, it was kept in continual alarm by the Egyptians, Arabians, or Romans. During the sixty years which elapsed between the return of Demetrius to his kingdom and the conversion of Syria into a Roman province, she ceased wholly to be formidable to her neighbors. Her flourishing period was gone by, and a rapid decline set in, from which there was no recovery. It is surprising that the Romans did not step in earlier and terminate a rule which was but a little removed from anarchy. Rome, however, had other work on her hands; and the Syrian kingdom continued to exist till B.C. 65, though in a feeble and moribund condition.

But Phraates could not, without prophetic foresight, have counted on such utter prostration following as the result of a single—albeit a terrible—blow. Accordingly, we find him still exhibiting a dread of the Seleucid power even after his great victory. He had released Demetrius too late to obtain any benefit from the hostile feeling which that prince probably entertained towards his brother. Had he not released him too soon for his own safety? Was it not to be feared that the Syrians might rally under one who was their natural leader, might rapidly recover their strength, and renew the struggle for the mastery of Western Asia? The first thought of the dissatisfied monarch was to hinder the execution of his own project. Demetrius was on his way to Syria, but had not yet arrived there, or, at any rate, his arrival had not been as yet reported. Was it not possible to intercept him? The Parthian king hastily sent out a body of horse, with orders to pursue the Syrian prince at their best speed, and endeavor to capture him before he passed the frontier. If they succeeded, they were to bring him hack to their master, who would probably have then committed his prisoner to close custody. The pursuit, however, failed. Demetrius had anticipated, or at least feared, a change of purpose, and, having prosecuted his journey with the greatest diligence, had reached his own territory before the emissaries of Phraates could overtake him.

It is uncertain whether policy or inclination dictated the step which Phraates soon afterwards took of allaying himself by marriage with the Seleucidae. He had formally given his sister, Ehodogune, as a wife to Demetrius, and the marriage had been fruitful, Rhodogune having borne Demetrius several children. The two houses of the Seleucidae and Arsacidae were thus already allied to some extent. Phraates resolved to strengthen the bond. The unmarried daughter of Demetrius whom he had captured after his victory over Antiochus took his fancy; and he determined to make her his wife. At the same time he adopted other measures calculated to conciliate the Seleucid prince. He treated his captive, Seleucus, the son of Antiochus, with the greatest respect. To the corpse of Antiochus he paid royal honors; and, having placed it in a silver coffin, he transmitted it to the Syrians for sepulture.

Still, if we may believe Justin, he entertained the design of carrying his arms across the Euphrates and invading Syria, in order to avenge the attack of Antiochus upon his territories. But events occurred which forced him to relinquish this enterprise. The Scythians, whom he had called to his aid under the pressure of the Syrian invasion, and who had arrived too late to take part in the war, demanded the pay which they had been promised, and suggested that their arms should be employed against some other enemy. Phraates was unwilling either to requite services not rendered, or to rush needlessly into a fresh war merely to gratify the avarice of his auxiliaries. He therefore peremptorily refused to comply with either suggestion. Upon this, the Scythians determined to take their payment into their own hands, and began to ravage Parthia and to carry off a rich booty. Phraates, who had removed the headquarters of his government to Babylonia, felt it necessary to entrust affairs there to an officer, and to take the field in person against this new enemy, which was certainly not less formidable than the Syrians. He selected for his representative at the seat of Empire a certain Himerus (or Evemerus), a youth with whom he had a disgraceful connection, and having established him as a sort of viceroy, marched away to the northeast, and proceeded to encounter the Scythians in that remote region. Besides his native troops, he took with him a number of Greeks, whom he had made prisoners in his war with Antiochus. Their fidelity could not but be doubtful; probably, however, he thought that at a distance from Syria they would not dare to fail him, and that with an enemy so barbarous as the Scythians they would have no temptation to fraternize. But the event proved him mistaken. The Greeks were sullen at their captivity, and exasperated by some cruel treatment which they had received when first captured. They bided their time; and when, in a battle with the Scythians, they saw the Parthian soldiery hard pressed and in danger of defeat, they decided matters by going over in a body to the enemy. The Parthian army was completely routed and destroyed, and Phraates himself was among the slain. We are not told what became of the victorious Greeks; but it is to be presumed that, like the Ten Thousand, they fought their way across Asia, and rejoined their own countrymen.

Thus died Phraates I., after a reign of about eight or nine years. Though not possessing the talents of his father, he was a brave and warlike prince, active, enterprising, fertile in resources, and bent on maintaining against all assailants the honor and integrity of the Empire. In natural temperament he was probably at once soft and cruel. But, when policy required it, he could throw his softness aside and show himself a hardy and intrepid warrior. Similarly, he could control his natural harshness, and act upon occasion with clemency and leniency. He was not, perhaps, without a grim humor, which led him to threaten more than he intended, in order to see how men would comport themselves when greatly alarmed. There is some evidence that he aimed at saying good things; though it must be confessed that the wit is not of a high order. Altogether he has more character than most Oriental monarchs; and the monotony of Arsacid biography is agreeably interrupted by the idiosyncrasy which his words and conduct indicate.