Keith Hunt - Parthia - the Forgotten Superpower - Page Five   Restitution of All Things

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The Parthian Empire - Superpower #3

The Rise of an Empire against Rome


From the book "The Lost Ten Tribes of Israel...Found!"

by Steven Collins


Continued from previous page:

     The next Parthian king, Phraates IV, was a moral wretch who
killed his brothers, his father (King Orodes, who had abdicated
in his son's favor), and even some of the Megistanes. The chaos
within Parthia invited another Roman invasion. This invasion was
led by the famous Mark Antony, who invaded Parthia in 37 B.C.
with an army of 113,000 soldiers. 50 The Romans besieged a
Parthian provincial capital in Media (northwest Iran), but could
not subdue it. The Parthian army arrived, and wiped out Antony's
supply columns, killing 10,000 Romans. With winter imminent,
Antony had to admit defeat, and led his beaten army back through
Armenia, fighting the terrain, the weather, hunger and the
Parthians the whole way. Considering the hardships faced, Mark
Antony did well to salvage 60-70,000 Romans soldiers from his
disastrous campaign, as he could have lost his whole army and his
own life. Antony acted cruelly toward the Armenians, and this
helped create a lasting impression among the Armenians that
Parthian rule was preferable to Roman rule.
     A period of "detente" then occurred between Parthia and Rome
which lasted almost a century (36 B.C. to 58 A.D.). 51 Parthia
and Rome had learned that they were equal "superpowers" in the
ancient world, with the Euphrates River marking their border.
While Parthia had crushed two Roman attempts to invade the
Parthian Empire, Rome had successfully pushed Parthian armies
back across the Euphrates after Parthia occupied Rome's eastern
territories for three years. Phraates IV, the emperor of Parthia
who had killed his brothers and father after ascending to the
throne, lived to "reap what he had sown." After reigning
thirty-five years, he was assassinated by his wife and son in 2
     In 1 A.D., when another Roman invasion of Parthia seemed
imminent, Parthia and Rome avoided hostilities via a major
"summit conference." The classical writers recorded that the
respective armies of the Roman and Parthian empires lined up on
each side of the Euphrates River while the negotiators met on
neutral territory (an island in the river). Parthia's emperor,
Phraataces, met with Caius Caesar, the grandson of Augustus
Caesar as they negotiated an agreement. 52 While war was averted,
the Romans seem to have won a slight victory at the conference
table. While the Romans agreed to withdraw their armies, and
threaten Parthia no more, the Parthians agreed to accept Armenia
as being within Rome's sphere of influence. This Parthian-Roman
summit conference resulted in the prolongation of the period of
"detente" between the two powers. It was during this time that
Jesus Christ was born, conducted his ministry, and was crucified.
     Jesus Christ himself played a role in the Parthian-Roman
rivalries (a subject examined in chapter nine).

     The internecine conflicts of the Arsacid family members
became so great that Parthia established the habit of sending
various members of its royal family to Rome (perhaps believing
them to be safer there than in Parthia due to the assassinations
among the Arsacid family members in Parthia). Some Parthian kings
were summoned from the Arsacids who had been raised in Rome, but
they alienated the Parthians with their foreign ways. Several
times the Scythians became arbiters of who should be the Parthian
king by their military intervention in behalf of specific Arsacid
     Given the turmoil within the royal house of the Arsacids, it
is remarkable that this one dynasty maintained its rule over
Parthia throughout its existence. The prophecy of Jeremiah 33:17,
that David's descendants would continually rule over the ten
tribes of Israel, was kept unbroken during Parthia's existence.
While many Parthian monarchs were quite corrupt in their personal
lives, there is at least one record of a Parthian provincial king
adopting Judaism, 53 indicating that some Parthian rulers did
acknowledge the God of the Bible. The presence of Parthian
pilgrims at a Pentecost (Feast of Weeks) celebration in Jerusalem
(Acts 2:9) confirms that a portion of Parthia's population also
served the God of Israel. Since this occurred during the
"detente" period between Rome and Parthia, Parthians were free to
travel to Jerusalem and participate in the Holy Days observed by
the Jews.
     While Parthian-Roman affairs were calm, Parthia fought (and
lost) a war over Armenia to an alliance of Iberians and Scythians
headed by king Pharasmanes of Iberia. 54 This war (35-36 A.D.)
pitted Israelite against Israelite. Earlier chapters demonstrated
that Israelites fleeing Assyrian tyranny had fled to the Black
Sea regions north of Armenia and established Iberian and Scythian
kingdoms. King Pharasmanes bore the name of the royal Davidic
line (the Judaic line of Phares), and "Iberia" was named after
"Eber," a patriarch of the Hebrews. After the Parthian king,
Artabanus, lost this war, he was forced to flee to other
Scythians for sanctuary.
     The Parthian Arsacids were in a state of great turmoil which
ended in 51 A.D. with the death of an extraordinarily cruel
emperor, Gotarzes, who sought to eliminate all rivals to the
throne by murdering all the close and distant male relatives that
he could find, including children and even pregnant wives. 55
     In 51 A.D., a remarkable amity occurred between three
brothers who were heirs to the Parthian throne. One (Volagases I)
became the Parthian emperor, a second (Pacorus) became
vassal-king of Media, and the third (Tiridates) was appointed
king of Armenia. This latter choice involved severe political
problems. Armenia was claimed by both the Romans and the
Parthians. However, Armenia had been recognized as part of the
Roman sphere of influence for decades as part of the overall
Parthian-Roman detente. Indeed, at that time, Armenia was ruled
by a king named Mithridates, the brother of King Pharasmanes of
Iberia. To assert Parthian rule over Armenia would result in a
Roman war, yet an external war was likely preferable to the
internal civil war which could have occurred within Parthia had
not the third royal brother been awarded a prominent province.
This Parthian action resulted in a desultory Parthian-Roman
conflict over Armenia until 62 A.D. when Nero, Rome's emperor,
sent an large army to challenge the Parthians. The Romans were
shocked when Parthia launched a winter offensive against them,
and the Romans suffered an ignominious defeat. During this time
the Armenians fought to live under Parthian rule rather than
Roman rule. 56 This was understandable since Parthian rule
habitually offered more local autonomy than Roman rule.
A strange peace settlement occurred the following year in which
Parthia won control of Armenia and Rome won a concession to her
imperial vanity (at massive cost to Rome). The agreement left
Tiridates, the brother of the Parthian king, as the undisputed
ruler of Armenia (recognizing the status quo which Parthia had
won on the battlefield). However, to assuage Rome's pride,
Tiridates agreed to travel to Rome to receive his crown from Nero
(to preserve the facade that Rome was willingly giving rulership
of Armenia to Tiridates). Tiridates traveled to Rome, escorted by
3000 Parthian cavalry troops. Rome paid the bill for all Parthian
travel expenses. (Classical writers recorded that it cost the
Roman treasury 800,000 sesterces a day for nine months!) 57 This
treaty gave the Parthians full control over Armenia, and the
Romans "won" the right to give over 3000 Parthians an
all-expenses-paid trip to Rome so Tiridates would feign some
obsequious words to Nero in Rome. At any rate, both parties were
satisfied, and Parthian-Roman relations were amicable for another
     Toward the end of the first century A.D., the Parthians
established friendly relations with the Dacians, a people living
in Eastern Europe along the Danube River, who also disliked the
Romans. 58 The establishment of Parthian good-will with the
Dacians (called "Getae" by the Greeks) 59 will become significant
in chapter ten. In the reign of Mithridates IV (107-113 A.D.),
the Parthians began placing Semitic inscriptions on their coins
(previous coins had continued the Seleucid practice of using
Hellenist inscriptions). 60 This was consistent with the fact
that the Parthians utilized a Semitic alphabet. The Encyclopaedia
Britannica notes the following regarding Parthia's language:

"The alphabets in use in Persia, at least from the time of the
Arsacid dynasty onward [i.e. the time of the Parthian Empire] are
based upon the Aramaic." 61 

     The Parthian use of an alphabet based on Aramaic (a Semitic
langauge closely related to Hebrew) supports the conclusion that
the Parthians were the descendants of the ten tribes of Israel.
If the Parthians and Scythians had originated deep in the
interior of Asia, their alphabet and language would not have been
Semitic. The fact that the Parthians utilized an alphabet which
originated in the eastern Mediterranean region inhabited by the
Israelites and Aramaeans confirms that Parthian origins were in
the eastern Mediterranean, the former homeland of the ten tribes
of Israel.

     The year after the death of Mithridates, the Roman Emperor
Trajan broke the peace, and began military hostilities. Trajan,
by subterfuge, had a nephew of the Parthian monarch killed who
had come to him in anticipation of a peaceful settlement. In
noting Trajari's deceitfulness, Rawlinson describes Trajari's
actions as "disgraceful" and "base." 62 Filled with vanity and
pride, Trajan set out to emulate the Asian conquests of Alexander
the Great.
     While wintering in Antioch of Syria, Trajan barely escaped
with his life when he was almost killed in a destructive
earthquake, which was "of a violence and duration unexampled in
ancient times ... many Romans of the highest rank perished." 63
Besides leveling Antioch, it destroyed nine other cities in Roman
provinces in Asia Minor and Greece. Was it a portent of things to
come? Rawlinson commented:

"... it seemed as if Providence had determined that the new
glories which Rome was gaining by the triumphs of her arms should
be obscured by calamities of a kind that no human power could
avert or control ... that [the reign of Trajan]... should go down
to posterity as one of gloom, suffering, and disaster." 64

     If the earthquakes were a divine warning, Trajan paid them
no heed. He resumed his invasion of Parthia, and was almost
unopposed as he marched through Mesopotamia, advancing as far as
the Persian Gulf. Trajan then indulged in egomania, regarding
himself as "another Alexander," taking a "pleasure voyage" down
the Tigris River into the Persian Gulf, and regretting "that his
advanced years prevented him from making India the term of his
labours." 65 The Bible states in Proverbs 16:18 that "Pride goeth
before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall." Trajan
was about to become a living example of the truth of that
     The Parthians had not yet fought a serious, pitched battle.
Either they were caught unprepared by Trajan's campaign or they
sensed that the usual Roman arrogance would soon cause the
conquered Parthian provinces to realize what a good thing they
had under Parthian rule. While Trajan was indulging his ego on
the Persian Gulf, the recently-conquered Parthian provinces
rebelled on a massive scale. Although the Romans burned Seleucia
and other major cities, the natives exacted a heavy toll on the
Romans, and even exterminated an entire Roman army. The
Parthians, meanwhile, risked little as their former subjects did
the fighting to remove the hated Romans. History was repeating
itself. These same native populations had previously fought the
Seleucid Greeks in order to return to Parthian rule.
     Trajan was in a dangerous position as his line of retreat
was full of hostile nations. Additionally, it was as if nature
itself became a Parthian ally. It is recorded that the Romans:

"... suffered from the heat, from ... the swarms of flies which
disputed with them every morsel of their food and every drop of
their drink, and finally from violent hail and thunderstorms." 66

     Perhaps it was no coincidence. The Parthians were
Israelites, some of whom worshipped the God of Israel (Acts 2:9),
at least one Parthian provincial king openly worshipped Israel's
God in the apostolic era, and the Parthians were placing Semitic
inscriptions on their coinage. The last fact indicates that the
Parthians were officially identifying with their Semitic (i.e.
Israelite) roots. It is also quite significant that a delegation
of Parthia's nobility (the "Wise Men" or "Magi" of Matthew
2:1-12) had come to worship Jesus Christ as this indicates God
was closely involved with portions of the leadership of Parthia's
     Given the above, it is possible that God himself caused the
earthquakes, plagues of flies, hail, etc. to punish the arrogant
Trajan. The Old Testament records several instances where God
intervened in similar fashion in behalf of the Israelite tribes.
While God gives humans a "lot of rope," the Bible has many
accounts of God's personal intervention to punish nations and
national leaders when they become too vain.
     Most unusual at this time was the lack of any major Parthian
military action against the Romans. In the past they quickly
clashed with invading Romans, generally routing them on the

     Why did they not so confront Trajan? Were they internally
weakened, or had the Parthians been told by an unnamed prophet of
God not to fight because "the battle was the Lord's?"
     The Parthians reoccupied their territory as it was abandoned
by the retreating Romans. Trajan died soon after his humiliating
retreat, and the new Roman emperor (Hadrian) unilaterally gave
back to Parthia all territory taken by Trajan, yielded Armenia
back to Arsacid rule, and pulled all Roman forces back on their
side of the Euphrates River. It was very uncharacteristic of Rome
to yield large amounts of territory to an enemy under any
circumstance, but it was unprecedented for Rome to cede so much
territory absent any military threat. Since the Parthians had
done nothing militarily cause the Romans to fear them, it is
likely that the polytheistic Romans feared Parthia's God, and
viewed the persistent natural disasters visited upon the Romans
in the east to be divine punishment upon them. Nothing else
explains Rome's very uncharacteristic behavior.
     Rome avoided any Parthian wars for another half-century.
Indeed, when hostilities did seem imminent at one time, peace
ensued from another "Summit Conference" in 122 A.D. between the
Roman and Parthian emperors, Hadrian and Chosroes. 67

     The next Parthian emperor, Vologases, continued the use of
Semitic inscriptions ("Volgasa Malcha") on his coins. 68 The use
of the word "Malcha" for king is significant. John 18:10 shows us
that "Malchus" was being used as a Hebrew proper name in the
first century A.D. The Hebrew word for king is represented by the
consonants M-L-K, 69 and the Parthians used the consonants M-L-CH
to designate the Semitic word "king" on their coins. When one
considers that the "CH" symbol can represent the same phonetic
sound as a "K," the origin of this Semitic word is clear.
     Rawlinson noted that Semitic legends "are frequent on the
coins of the later Parthian kings." 70 On this specific issue, I
again acknowledge the help of Dr. Charles Dorothy, a graduate of
the Claremont Graduate School, who noted that the Hebrew caph may
be transliterated as either "ch" or "k."
     The Parthian switch to Semitic inscriptions on their coins
is evidence of a renewed awareness of their Semitic origin. This
watershed event has not been fully appreciated in the histories
of the Parthians, and it deserves further comment.
     Acts 2:9 records that many people from Parthia and their
provinces (Medes, Elamites, Mesopotamians) served the God of
Israel in the first century A.D. The visit of the Parthian "Wise
Men" (or Magi) to worship and offer gifts to the child, Jesus
Christ, is a striking event. The fact that high-ranking Parthian
Magi came to worship Jesus Christ documents that God was very
personally involved with some of the Parthian nobility and had
even revealed Jesus Christ's divinity to them. The timing of
their arrival in Jerusalem further indicates that the Parthian
Magi were familiar with Hebrew prophecies indicating that the
Messiah was due at that time. Parthia was evangelized by
Christians: Eusebius recorded that the Apostle Thomas was sent to
Parthia. 71 I Peter 5:13 records that the Apostle Peter was in
Parthian territory (the city of Babylon) when he wrote his first
epistle. Since Matthew 10:6 states that Jesus sent his Apostles
to "the lost sheep of the House of Israel," the presence of at
least two Apostles in Parthian territory confirms that they were
evangelizing the ten tribes of Israel located in Parthia. Their
message surely included the theme: "you Parthians are the ten
tribes of Israel, and the Messiah (Jesus) has sent us to you!"
Since some of Parthia's ruling class (the Magi) had already
worshipped Jesus Christ, the apostles were assured of a much
warmer reception for their message in Parthia than in Roman

     The above reveals that Parthian-Roman events of this period
must be understood in the context of what was clearly a
significant penetration of the Christian religion into Parthia
(including the ruling classes). The Encyclopaedia Britannica
comments as follows regarding this period in Parthia's history:

"...Greek culture practically vanishes and gives place to
Aramaic; it is significant that in [the] future the Kings of
Mesene stamped their coinage with Aramaic legends. This Aramaic
victory was powerfully aided by the everincreasing progress of
Christianity ...[and cites] Edessa, a city in which the last king
of Osroene, Abgar IX (179-214 A.D.), had been converted to the
faith." 72 

     According to Harper's Bible Dictionary, Aramaic was:

"... a Semitic language closely related to Hebrew ...[and]
several passages in the OT are written in Official Aramaic [cited
are texts in Ezra, Daniel, Jeremiah and Genesis]. Jesus probably
spoke a dialect of Western Aramaic and some words in the NT come
from Aramaic, e.g., 'Talitha Cumi,' 'Maranatha,' and 'Golgotha.'"

     The prominence of Aramaic in Parthian life during the
Christian apostolic and post-apostolic period was linked to the
spread of Christianity into Parthia from the Mideast (where
Aramaic was dominant). Add to this the record of Josephus, the
Jewish historian of that period, who stated that the descendants
of the ten tribes of Israel were exceedingly numerous and living
"beyond Euphrates." As mentioned earlier, the phrase "beyond
Euphrates" was, for Josephus a euphemism which meant "in
Parthia's empire" since the Euphrates had long been the
recognized border between the Roman and Parthian Empires. If
educated Jews such as Josephus realized that the Parthians were
the ten tribes of Israel, and since regular commerce and
communication occurred between Judea and Parthia (as Acts 2:9
confirms), then it is logical that the Parthians also realized
their origins at that time. Indeed, how could they not have known
it? The presence in Judea of high-ranking Parthian Magi to
worship the young Jesus argues that many Parthians were aware of
their Israelite heritage and origins.
     The reign of Volagases 11, Parthia's emperor for 19 years
(130-149 A.D.), is characterized as having "a general character
of tranquility." 74 This tranquility within Parthia's ruling
house stands in stark contrast to the murderous internal
struggles of the Arsacids prior to the Christian apostolic era.
As Christianity penetrated the Parthian Empire, it would seem
that its benign doctrines influenced the conduct of Parthia's
rulers as well.
     Predictably, the Romans eventually reneged on their treaty
with Parthia. During Trajan's invasion, the Romans had captured a
Parthian "golden throne," and had promised to return it as part
of the peace settlement. After attempts to secure Roman
compliance with the treaty failed, Parthia went to war. 75 Under
Volagases 111, Parthia conquered Armenia, and restored a native
ruler as king of Armenia. A Roman legion crossed the Euphrates
and was destroyed by the Parthians. The Parthians then crossed
the Euphrates into Roman Syria and Palestine, but their presence
was short-lived. A Roman army led by Avidius Cassius won a major
battle against the Parthians, who retreated across the Euphrates.
Avidius Cassius then led his army across the Euphrates, and
proceeded to reconquer Parthian territories occupied briefly
during Trajan's invasion. Cassius burned Seleucia (having then
400,000 residents), and captured Ctesiphon (Parthia's western
capital). The Romans marched at will through Parthia's western
provinces, and the Parthians seemed powerless to resist. Just
when the Romans seemed invincible; however, they were driven from
Parthia, not by a Parthian army but by a terrible plague.
     One wonders if the arrogant Romans taunted the heavens with
words like: "where is the God of the Parthians who supposedly
plagued Trajan?" or "Parthia's God can't protect them from us!"
Whether such an attitude provoked a divine response (as it did in
the time of King Hezekiah of ancient Judeh--2 Kings 18-19) or
whether God merely allowed the Parthians to come to the point of
realizing their dependence on him, this plague devastated the
entire Roman Empire. This plague was so overwhelming that there
was no doubt in Roman minds that the plague was supernatural in
nature. The polytheistic Romans, with no awareness of the Creator
God, attributed the divine plague to "spells of the Chaldeans"
unleashed because of Roman excesses in looting a temple of
Apollo. 76
     The plague, of a "strange and terrible character," 77 was so
virulent that Rawlinson refers to the return of this army to Rome
as "a march of death through the provinces" as it spread the
disease throughout the provinces of the Roman Empire. Rawlinson
cites Roman historians in stating:

"... the pestilence raged with special force throughout Italy,
and spread as far as the Rhine and Atlantic Ocean ... more than
one-half of the entire population, and almost the whole Roman
army, was carried off by it." 78

     This plague was responsible for severely reducing the native
Latin population of both the Roman Empire and its army.
Significantly, while this plague devastated the whole Roman
Empire, there is no mention of it affecting Parthia. That this
plague rescued Parthia and devastated their Roman invaders
supports a belief that the plague was a divine judgement of God
against Rome.
     The Romans, remembering that the last Roman army to enter so
deeply into Parthia was also devastated by "divine action,"
developed a belief that the previous return of Parthian territory
by the Emperor Hadrian "sprang more from prudence than from
generosity." 79 While modern man may scoff at the thought of
divine intervention in the affairs of nations, the ancient Romans
did not believe it to be coincidental that terrible natural
plagues befell them each time they penetrated deeply into
Parthian territory.
     Decades later, another major Roman-Parthian war was fought
in approximately 194-200 A.D. in which subject Mesopotamian
peoples massacred Roman garrisons, aided by Parthian vassal
kings. This led to a Roman-Parthian war when Severus, Rome's
emperor, led an army across the Euphrates. Diverted by internal
problems, Severus returned to Rome. The Parthians attacked,
routed the Romans armies, besieged Nisibis (a Roman headquarters)
and crossed the Euphrates into Roman territory. Severus returned
to the Middle East, and supported by local natives, conquered his
way to Ctesiphon, Parthia's western capital on the Tigris River.
The Roman army perpetrated an orgy of bloodletting, killing every
Parthian male captive, and carrying captive into slavery about
100,000 women and children. 80 Short of supplies, the Romans
withdrew, but this time retained control of most of Mesopotamia.
Parthia was inert and failed to retaliate, indicating a state of
internal decline within Parthia. Furthermore, if the previous
defeats of Roman armies under Trajan and Avidius Cassius were the
result of divine action, the lack of divine assistance in
repulsing this Roman attack speaks volumes. Since God's
assistance is dependent on obedience to God's laws, the lack of
any evidence of divine assistance argues that Parthia was in a
state of moral decline.
     The final Roman-Parthian war began with immense treachery on
the part of the Romans. In 215 A.D., the Emperor Caracallus,
developed an elaborate "disinformation campaign" to dupe the
Parthians into letting down their defenses. He proposed a peace
settlement which would be cemented by a marriage between
Caracallus and a daughter of the Parthian monarch. The Romans
even proposed a political and economic union between Parthia and
Rome. 81
     Even though Roman promises had never had any worth, the
Parthians believed the deceitful Roman "peace initiative," and
allowed the Roman Emperor (escorted by a huge army) to proceed to
the Parthian capital for the wedding. It is a testimony to the
human capacity for self-delusion that the Parthians were so
gullibly willing to believe the Romans in spite of every
historical warning that such an offer could not be genuine. They
continued in a state of denial even as Caracallus marched his
army to Ctesiphon, Parthia's western capital. Parthia so wanted
to believe that Caracallus was a reformer, an enlightened man of
peace, different from the warlike Romans of the past. The
Parthians received the Romans with genuine hospitality, certain
that a "New World Order" [to borrow a modern term] of peaceful
harmony was beginning.
     According to Herodian's history, the Parthians "were
transported with joy at the prospect of an eternal peace...and
were keeping holiday" 82 as Caracallus and his army arrived. The
Romans then dropped their pretense of peace and began
slaughtering the gullible Parthians. The Parthian monarch barely
escaped with his life. Not content with his already heinous
betrayal of Parthian trust, the Romans then added massive insult
to massive injury by desecrating the Parthian royal cemetery and
scattering the remains of the deceased Parthian emperors. 83
     Outraged, the Parthians assembled a vast military force to
take vengeance on the Romans. Based on subsequent events, it may
have been the largest army Parthia ever assembled. Since Rome's
armies had never penetrated the huge interior of Parthia's
empire, most Parthian provinces had never experienced the
treachery of Rome's aggressions. However, all Parthians
throughout the empire were

To be continued

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