Merv was the eastern limit of Parthian rule in inner Asia and the oasis would have been a formidable frontier outpost for Rome. Any advance further east towards the Oxus River would have brought the Romans into conflict with other steppe peoples including the Mardi (Kangju) in Sogdia and the Tocharians (Yuezhi-Kushan) in Bactria. These steppe populations were developing into powerful regimes that could field mounted armies as large as their Parthian rivals. Pliny explains that ‘these people are numerous enough to live on equal terms with the Parthians.’ War with these nations would be a significant challenge for Rome, so a better prospect for conquest was for Roman armies to march south and claim a contested desert region in eastern Iran called Aria (western Afghanistan).
Strabo describes Aria and Margiana as ‘the most powerful districts in this part of Asia because they are populated plains enclosed by mountains’. These wide plains were intersected and irrigated by large rivers that made the land fertile, suitable for viticulture and capable of supporting large cities. Strabo estimated that central Aria occupied an area about 200 miles long and 30 miles across.
In this period Aria was ruled by Parthian princes and Isidore outlines the route from Merv that would lead an invading army through the main cities in this region. These included Candac, Artacauan and a capital called Alexandria Ariana, which was founded by Macedonian military colonists. Isidore also mentions ‘a very great city’ known as Phra and five further cities named Bis, Gari, Nia, Parin and Coroc. The existence of this urban network meant that Roman armies would be capturing cities rather than village-based caravan stations. But the area was remote from Babylonia and Isidore had few details about the actual condition of the cities of Aria.
The conquest of Aria would have extinguished Parthian rule in ancient Iran and if they continued south, the Roman legions would provoke conflict with other nations. East of Aria was the territory of Arachosia (southwest Afghanistan) which was under the rule of a steppe people who Isidore calls the ‘Scythian Saka’. These Saka were subject to the Parthians, but they could be encouraged to become allies of the Roman Empire as vassal rulers or client kings. Isidore lists a route through Arachosia to bring Roman forces to the cities of Barda, Min, Palacenti and a capital called Sigal, where these Scythian-Sakas had their royal residence. Nearby was a part-Hellenic city called Alexandropolis which was another legacy of Macedonian military colonisation.
According to Isidore, the Parthians referred to eastern Arachosia as ‘White India’. This was probably because its Iranian population had been part of the Mauryan Empire of ancient India during the third century BC. Consequently, Arachosia preserved strong elements of Indian culture within its civic administrations. Arachosia controlled certain approaches to the Hindu Kush and the mountain passes that led to the Indus kingdoms. Isidore charts a route through this region that would have taken Roman forces through several important cities including Biyt, Pharsana and Chorochoad. He also records the existence of a Hellenic city named ‘Demetrias’ that was probably established by the Greek King Demetrius of Bactria who conquered this region in about 180 BC. The itinerary outlined by Isidore ends at the city of Alexandria Arachosia (Kandahar) which was another Macedonian foundation established by Alexander and his generals. Isidore explains that the city was considered ‘Greek’ and ‘as far as this place, the land is under the rule of the Parthians.’
If they had accomplished all these conquests, the Romans would have occupied every Hellenic city in the Parthian realm and brought the frontiers of their empire as far as Bactria and Gandhara. Beyond Arachosia were the Indus kingdoms who were at that time subject to the Indo-Sakas and their overlord King Azes. Azes sent envoys to Augustus in 26 BC proposing a political alliance. Suetonius records that these ‘Indo-Scythians’ (Sakas) ‘were from nations previously known to us only through hearsay and they petitioned for an alliance (amicitia) with Augustus and the Roman people’. In earlier times the Sakas had been able to field 20,000 mounted archers, but Azes probably commanded only a fraction of this fighting force. Orosius suggests that the Saka ambassadors expected a western war against Persia and came ‘to praise the Emperor with the glory of Alexander the Great’. To emphasise his connection to Hellenic culture, Azes issued currency displaying images of the goddess Athena and used Greek titles referring to himself as ‘The Great King of Kings’. He sent further envoys to the Emperor in 22 BC who delivered a royal letter written in Greek pledging that Azes was ‘ready to allow Augustus passage through his country, wherever he wished to proceed and co-operate with him in anything that was honourable’. The king confirmed that he held the allegiance of 600 minor sovereigns in northern India and ‘was anxious for an alliance with Caesar Augustus’. Dio reports that earlier proposals were formalised and a ‘treaty of friendship’ (amicitia) firmly agreed between the two sovereigns. Augustus emphasises the military aspect of these meetings in his memorial testimony when he records that ‘to me were sent embassies of kings from India, who had never been seen in the camp of any Roman general’. Respecting this alliance, the military itinerary provided by Isidore assumes that Roman aggression would end in Arachosia near the frontiers of the allied Saka kingdom.
Augustus may have given Azes the honours due to a Roman Consul (supreme magistrate) including the gift of a curule chair. Curule chairs were distinctive campaign stools that consuls would sit upon when they made formal diplomatic or judicial rulings. Consequently the object symbolised the political and military authority of senior imperial commanders operating outside Rome. Livy describes how the Numidian king Masinissa was given this honour in 203 BC when the Romans required military allies to fight the city-state of Carthage in North Africa. The Roman general Scipio presented Masinissa with imperial insignia including ‘a golden crown, curule chair, an ivory sceptre, a purple-bordered toga and a tunic embroidered with palms’. The Senate approved these gifts and bestowed further symbols of Roman rank on the foreign king including ‘two purple cloaks with golden clasps, two tunics embroidered with the laticlave [senatorial purple stripe]; two richly caparisoned horses and a set of equestrian armour with cuirasses; two tents with the military furniture appropriate for Consuls’. The remains of a folding iron stool similar to a curule chair were found during excavations at the Saka capital of Sirkap near Taxila.⁵³ The object became a symbol of political authority in the Upper Indus that was claimed by the Indo-Parthians. When Kujula Kadphises conquered this region in the late first century AD he depicted a subject Parthian prince seated on a curule chair.
The Peace Settlement
Augustus reasoned it was not an opportune time for Rome to begin a war against the Parthians and consequently no invasion scheme was launched during the first decade of his reign. However an opportunity for war occurred in 20 BC, when the Armenians asked the Romans for assistance to remove an unpopular king who had aligned himself with the Parthians. Augustus arranged for a replacement ruler to be selected from amongst the eastern princes that were resident in Rome. He chose an Iranian noble named Tigranes and in 20 BC Roman armies entered Armenia and Tigranes III formally received his crown from Tiberius, the stepson of Augustus. This was a provocative act given that the previous Armenian king had been appointed by the Parthian King Phraates IV. But the Parthians were involved in eastern wars against the Sakas and chose not to immediately retaliate, or further escalate the situation in Armenia. It was in their interests to maintain peace on their western frontiers, even if that meant that Armenia was brought under increased Roman influence.
In 20 BC Augustus secured a long-term peace agreement with the Parthian King Phraates IV. This agreement allowed both rulers to concentrate their military activities on other frontiers and thereby enlarge their respective empires. In 19 BC Roman armies completed the conquest of northern Spain and eliminated the remaining outposts of resistance in the Alps. By 12 BC the Romans had annexed Pannonia and secured the Danube frontiers that safeguarded the main land-routes between Italy and Greece. Then the legions began campaigns in Germany to capture territory beyond the Rhine. In the east the Parthians overran Saka-controlled territories beyond the Hindu Kush and installed allied warlords as princes in the rich Indus kingdoms. These eastern conquests were complete by 10 BC, when the Parthians deposed King Azes and the remaining Saka warlords fled south to form a new ruling dynasty in Gujarat on the west coast of India.
The political settlement agreed in 20 BC required Phraates IV to return the legionary battle-standards lost by Crassus and repatriate Roman prisoners of war who had been settled in Merv. Augustus granted his stepson Tiberius an imperial commission to collect the battle-standards from the Parthians and return them to Rome where the political settlement was presented as a Roman triumph. Dio Cassius reports that the Emperor ‘received the standards as if he had conquered the Parthians in a war and took great pride in this achievement’.
By returning the standards, Phraates IV removed a pretext for war and allowed Augustus to defuse the political pressure in Rome from those who sought further conflict and military revenge. The Parthian compliance was probably based on the goodwill achieved by covert diplomatic assurances, but Roman honour was satisfied with the suggestion that Phraates IV had been forced into submission by military threat. In his memorial testimony, Augustus records, ‘I forced the Parthians to return to me the spoils and standards of three Roman armies and to seek, as suppliants, the friendship of the Roman people.’
The Parthian diplomats may have suggested a marriage alliance in order to join the ruling dynasties of the empires. Augustus had a teenage daughter named Julia who had been married to a Roman youth named Marcus Claudius Marcellus. But when Marcus died suddenly in 23 BC, Augustus had to reconsider his plans for establishing a royal dynasty through Julia. Perhaps Phraates asked to marry Julia or some other leading Roman noblewoman, but the request was declined as it would have suggested that the two empires were equal in terms of international status. Augustus wanted to present himself as a citizen head-of-state rather than a dynastic king, so he preferred not to engage in the type of matrimonial alliances being practised by the rulers of other ancient empires. In 21 BC, Augustus arranged for Julia to marry his leading commander and most trusted political advisor Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa. Instead of an imperial princess, Augustus sent King Phraates IV the gift of an Italian concubine named Musa. Phraates IV married Musa and when she gave birth to a son named Phraataces, she was elevated to the position of leading consort. Eventually Musa became the Parthian Queen and was in a position to influence the royal succession.
The political settlement agreed in 20 BC was presented as a full Parthian capitulation to Roman authority and the return of the battle-standards was celebrated in Roman iconography as a symbol of foreign submission. The larger-than-life Prima Porta statue of Augustus portrays the Emperor standing barefoot with his right arm empty of a sword, raised in a gesture of peace. His breastplate depicts the return of the standards with the image of a kneeling Parthian offering the captured emblems to a Roman commander, a scene also celebrated on imperial coins issued in 19 BC. It was decided that the restored standards would be placed on display in a new monumental temple erected in Rome to honour the war god Mars Ultor (Mars the Avenger). The return of the lost battle-standards was also celebrated in imperial poetry with Ovid declaring ‘You Parthians no longer hold the proofs of our shame.’ Horace addressed Augustus with the comments ‘Throughout the whole world wars have been concluded under your auspices’ and ‘Parthia dreads a Rome led by your government.’
Over the next decade, Augustus remained on good terms with Phraates IV and between 11 and 7 BC the Parthian King sent some of his older sons to Rome to be ‘hosted’ by the Emperor. Phraates IV probably had personal motives for this action, as dissenters in the Parthian nobility often encouraged young princes to seize power from their fathers. So, by sending the young men to Rome, Phraates IV removed these candidates from court intrigues without having to deprive them of their royal position. The Parthian Queen Musa possibly encouraged this action, so that the succession route would be cleared for her own son Phraataces.
Strabo indicates the impact of imperial propaganda from this period when he explains that ‘the Parthians are very powerful, but they have yielded to Roman pre-eminence and returned the military trophies which they took to memorialize their victory over Rome. Moreover, Phraates has entrusted his children and grandchildren to Augustus, obsequiously ensuring his friendship by offering hostages.’ Writing several centuries after these events, Orosius believed that ‘the Parthians acted as if the attentions of the entire conquered and pacified world was focused upon them and the Roman Empire might direct their total strength against them.’ For this reason, ‘they voluntarily returned the standards that they had seized on the death of Crassus and after giving hostages, they obtained a lasting treaty by humbly promising to observe good faith.’
The Roman governor of Syria, Marcus Titius, oversaw the transfer of the Parthian princes across the imperial frontier. They were conveyed to Rome with their families and their royal requirements financed by Augustus at the expense of the Roman state. The exchange gave the Emperor an influence in the Parthian succession and further ensured that Musa’s half-Italian son Phraataces could succeed as king. Augustus derived great political advantage from these Parthian princes who he presented in Rome as royal candidates subject to imperial authority. Their presence suggested that Parthia might eventually become a client kingdom of Rome and its rulers subservient to Roman imperial interests. Horace presents this impression by claiming that ‘Phraates is now suppliant on his knees for he has acknowledged the laws and power of the Emperor.’
Further Prospects for War
Another political crisis threatened the peace between Rome and Parthia in 6 BC when King Tigranes III died and the Armenians appointed his sons as joint rulers without first seeking the approval of Rome. This was seen as a dangerous statement of independence that challenged Roman authority in the region. To deter Roman aggression, the Armenians sought Parthian backing to guarantee their efforts to reassert regional autonomy. In 5 BC, Augustus sent a campaign force into Armenia to place a Roman candidate on the throne, who within months was deposed by a popular uprising. The pro-Roman faction was expelled and a prince named Tigranes IV obtained the backing of the Parthian King Phraates IV to establish himself as the new ruler of a sovereign Armenia. This was a political triumph for the Parthians who had acquired new allies to support their regime and extend their political influence towards the Black Sea.
But Augustus was not prepared to accept this outcome of the Armenian dispute and planned to restore Roman claims over the kingdom. The invasion of Parthia was reconsidered as a military option and Roman agents were sent east to gather further intelligence concerning the Parthian realms. In 2 BC Augustus gave Gaius, the eldest of his grandsons, a special command in the eastern empire with orders to settle affairs with Parthia either by diplomacy, or military force. Gaius was in his early twenties, a similar age to Alexander when he had begun his conquest of Persia. The young general was well-liked by the Roman people and his command revived popular expectations that eastern victories were imminent.
During this period, dramatic public spectacles were staged in Rome to promote the prospect of Parthian wars and lead Roman opinion to expect new conquests. On one occasion the Emperor flooded part of the enormous plaza in the centre of the Saepta Julia building. From bleachers around the plaza the Roman crowds watched a specially staged mock naval battle recreating the victory at Artemisium when an Athenian-led Greek fleet triumphed over an invading Persian armada (480 BC). The combatants dressed in archaic costume and fought aboard replica ships. The spectacle reminded Roman audiences of past victories by classical civilisations over the land-based powers of Iran. It suggested that these conflicts were about to be reignited by Gaius in a Roman struggle against Parthian aggressors.
Ovid describes the spectacle and records how ‘the whole world seemed to be gathered in the city’ and how many Roman men were ‘beguiled by foreign romance’. After the excitement of the mock battle, even Ovid was enthusiastic for a war against the Parthian Empire. He explained: ‘The Emperor is preparing to complete the conquest of the world. Far-off eastern countries will soon submit to our laws, including the arrogant Parthians. For they will be punished as they deserve.’ Perhaps many Romans were unsatisfied with the previous diplomatic settlement and the appointment of Gaius offered them an opportunity for full revenge. Ovid wrote, ‘Oh spirits of Crassus and his Eagle standards shamed by barbarian possession, now you will rejoice and be festive, for your avenger is ready!’
Roman opinion was also encouraged by the prospect of receiving new wealth from the Parthian realms. Many would have recalled how Augustus granted large sums of money to Roman citizens after he had conquered Egypt and seized the royal treasures of the Ptolemies. They expected similar exploits from Gaius, and Ovid proclaimed: ‘Our righteous cause shall overcome the Parthians and our young hero will bring victory. The wealth of the Orient shall be added to the riches of Rome.’
Victory over the eastern kingdoms would mean impressive celebrations in Rome and Ovid looked forward to witnessing these exciting public festivities. The highlight of these events would have been a military triumph with captured eastern treasures and prisoners of war paraded through the crowded centre of Rome in carriage-mounted tableau displays. Ovid visualises the Parthian trophies and advises his readers to appear knowledgeable about foreign events, even if they know little about world affairs. He tells his male readers, ‘a beauty might ask you to name that defeated monarch, or you might have to explain to her “what do these emblems mean?”, “what country is that?” or “what does that mountain or river display represent?” You must anticipate her questions and answer with confidence, even if you have no real knowledge.’ Ovid gives an example of the right response: ‘That is the Euphrates with the crinkled crown, the figure with the sky-blue hair signifies the Tigris, those people are Armenians and that woman represents Persia.’ He also suggests that the suitor should include impressive references to ancient Greek myths and exaggerate the significance of the foreign captives being displayed on the exhibits. Tell her ‘they are captured generals and then invent their names.’
But the prospect of war between Rome and Parthia was averted by the murder of King Phraates IV. News reached Rome in 2 BC that Queen Musa had poisoned her husband and successfully installed her 17-year-old son Phraataces on the Parthian throne as Phraates V. As Gaius and his command staff made their way to Syria, Phraataces sent an embassy to Augustus explaining his concerns and requesting the return of any Parthian princes in Rome who might challenge his succession. Augustus denied this request and refused to hand over the royal candidates. He then escalated the situation by declining to acknowledge Phraataces as the Parthian ‘King of Kings’. By retaining the princes in Rome, Augustus reserved his right to interfere in the Parthian succession if Phraataces did not comply with future Roman policy.
When Gaius Caesar arrived in Syria he reaffirmed Roman claims to hold authority in Armenia and prepared the eastern legions for war. But he did not launch an immediate attack on Parthia and entered into political negotiations instead. In the autumn of 1 BC, Gaius and Phraataces assembled their armies facing each other on opposite banks of the Euphrates River. In a carefully staged pageant the two young men, accompanied by an equal number of attendants and political advisors, met on an island midstream. In full view of both armies, they deliberated over the details of a peace settlement and exchanged pledges to confirm the status and rights of their respective empires. Official celebrations were then conducted on each side of the river, with the Roman camp offering a reception for Phraataces and his nobles, and the following night the Parthians hosting a banquet for Gaius and his Roman commanders. Once more, longterm peace and cooperation between Rome and Parthia seemed to have been secured, but within a few years each of these young generals had met their death.
The Euphrates Agreement guaranteed that if Rome were to restore its authority over Armenia the Parthians would not interfere. Roman forces launched a campaign in Armenia to reclaim the region and install a royal candidate favourable to Rome. By AD 4 a Roman victory seemed assured and Gaius agreed to meet an Armenian leader named Addon who was ready to discuss surrender terms. Addon claimed to possess important documents and requested a personal meeting to present them to Gaius. As Gaius leant forward to receive the documents, Addon thrust a hidden dagger into the young man and fatally wounded him. Gaius, who had been the favoured candidate to succeed Augustus as Emperor, died from this wounds aged just 24.
By this time Augustus was 66 years old and there was no one else in the imperial family with the authority, popularity and esteem required to take charge of this special eastern command. With the death of Gaius, the reclusive middle-aged Tiberius became the most likely candidate to succeed Augustus as Emperor. But it was well-known that Tiberius had become estranged from the imperial family and had withdrawn from political and military service.
Meanwhile amongst the Parthian nobility, support for the half-Italian King Phraataces was wavering. In an effort to legitimise his foreign ancestry, he granted grand titles to his mother Queen Musa, but he could not quell the growing insurrection. In AD 4 he was overthrown by a rival Parthian regent named Orodes. On seizing the throne Orodes III had Phraataces put to death before launching a series of violent reprisals against large sections of the Parthian nobility. As a consequence Orodes was himself assassinated for his cruelty.
In AD 6 the Parthians sent an embassy to Augustus requesting the return of another son of Phraates IV named Vonones who was still living in Rome as a hostage prince. Augustus obliged and Vonones I was crowned as the Parthian King in AD 7. Strabo indicates Roman expectations that Parthia could be made a vassal state. He comments, ‘At present the Parthians have gone to Rome seeking a man to be their king and are now about ready to put their entire authority into the hands of the Romans.’ But Vonones had spent over two decades in Rome and his subjects considered his loyalties and mannerisms to be ‘too Roman’. Vonones ignored Parthian formalities and did not demonstrate sufficient interest in the steppe pursuits of horsemanship and hunting which strengthened social bonds between the ruling nobility. A revolt began in Media and by AD 12 a rival prince named Artabanus was proclaimed king in Ctesiphon.
Gaius and Phraataces might have changed the political fortunes of the western world if they had lived long enough to secure their position as rulers of their respective empires. But as events turned out, Rome missed the opportunity to conquer Parthia and lost the political struggle to establish an allied dynasty in ancient Iran. This meant that a foreign regime continued to control the caravan trails that connected Rome, through the Middle East, to Transoxiana, the Tarim Silk Routes and the economic wealth of ancient China.